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HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is laying the groundwork to shift its massive Gulf Coast oil spill clean-up operation from acute disaster management to long-term recovery, the nation's top spill official said on Thursday.
With a cap on BP Plc.'s blown-out well holding for two weeks and a permanent fix in the works, U.S. officials met local leaders and BP executives to consider clean-up operations.
They discussed "the way forward as we shift from ... response operations to long-term recovery operations," retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is in charge of the government response to the spill, told reporters.
Millions of gallons of oil leaked into the ocean over nearly three months.
But clean-up boats have found it increasingly hard to find oil on the surface and officials say much has dispersed or evaporated, although hundreds of miles (km) of coastline are polluted with orange or black deposits.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who attended the meeting along with BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles and key Louisiana parish presidents, described the meeting as "contentious at times," but "productive."
"Decisions on response efforts should not be made from the top down," Jindal said in a statement. "It's important for our coastal leaders to be part of all decisions that impact our coast."
Allen has said the clean-up of the worst U.S. offshore oil spill could take years. The meeting was a sign the operation, which has involved over 33,000 people, 4,300 ships, nearly 100 aircraft and one dirigible, is about to turn a corner.
"We want to be ready when we have finally removed the threat of discharge ... to understand where it is we want to go," Allen said.
The U.S. government and Louisiana officials need to agree on the criteria for the clean-up. "As there becomes less oil, how do we get to the inevitable question of how clean is clean?" Allen said.
Officials also discussed arrangements for interrupting clean-up operations in the event of a hurricane, Allen said.
When Tropical Storm Bonnie threatened the area last weekend, some local officials complained that the Coast Guard was needlessly removing clean-up gear for a storm that turned out to be less severe than forecast.
It could take from four to six week for newly released oil to travel from the spill site to Gulf Coast beaches, Allen said. But with flow from the well stopped, perhaps permanently, the giant skimming fleet is running out of targets, he said.
The oil is "more dispersed and harder to find," Allen said.
About 600 miles of shoreline was affected by oil as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. government. That is about a third of the entire U.S. Gulf shoreline.
Allen said BP could start its "static kill" plan to pump mud into the Macondo well -- the first in a two-step process to choke it off with mud and cement -- by this weekend, ahead of the scheduled start time on Monday, Allen said.
"There's a chance that that schedule can be accelerated," he said.
The decision to speed up would depend on BP's progress in completing a relief well that will eventually pump mud and cement into the bottom of the reservoir and permanently seal it, he said.
Editing by David Storey