PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama went swimming off the coast of Florida on Saturday and declared the Gulf area’s beaches “open for business,” trying to show by example that a region hit by the BP oil spill was safe for tourists to enjoy.
Obama, on his fifth visit to the region since BP Plc’s deep-sea well in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured in April, pledged to restore the economy and the environment in the aftermath of the world’s worst offshore oil spill.
“Oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf, and it has not been flowing for a month. But I’m here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we are not going anywhere until it is,” he told reporters after holding talks with local business owners.
“That is a commitment my administration is going to keep.”
No oil has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since July 15, when BP placed a tight-fitting cap over the broken Macondo well, which has spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil since April 20. The British company last week injected cement into the top of the well to seal it.
But officials say they will not declare victory until completion of a relief well being drilled 13,000 feet beneath the seabed that is now just feet away from its target. More cement is due to be pumped in via the well.
The president and his family are on a weekend trip to Panama City as part of an effort to encourage more tourists to visit Florida’s famous white sand beaches, which have suffered only minor damage from the spill, mostly in the form of scattered tar balls and small oil patches.
“I also want to point out that as a result of the cleanup effort, beaches all along the Gulf Coast are clean and safe and open for business,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons Michelle, Sasha, and I are here,” he said, referring to his wife and youngest daughter.
The White House later released a picture of Obama immersed in the Gulf waters, playing with 9-year-old Sasha.
Obama’s U.S. public approval ratings have been dented by public discontent, especially in Gulf Coast communities, over his administration’s response to the spill. The administration came under fire during the crisis for appearing to cede too much responsibility for management of the spill to BP.
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top government official overseeing the spill, said the company will get the go-ahead to finish the relief well but is doing a last batch of testing and planning first.
The testing is meant to make sure BP is prepared to deal with the risk of excessive pressure building up in the well during the final effort to kill it, Allen told a teleconference news briefing. The go-ahead could come by Tuesday, he said.
Obama had come under pressure to spend part of his summer vacation in the Gulf region to show solidarity with the thousands of people in the fishing and tourist industries whose livelihoods have been threatened by the spill.
While Florida escaped largely unscathed, other states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were hard hit and are the focus of BP’s cleanup operations.
Leaking oil seeped into ecologically sensitive wetlands and marshes, soiled miles of beaches and forced the closure of rich fishing grounds.
Obama highlighted the cleanup efforts in his remarks.
“Now, as a result of the massive cleanup operation that has already taken place, a recent report by our top scientists found that the majority of oil has now evaporated or dispersed, or it’s been burned, skimmed, or recovered from the wellhead,” he said. “But I won’t be satisfied until the environment has been restored, no matter how long it takes.”
Obama said any delays by BP or officials in paying claims to individuals affected by the spill are “unacceptable.”
Hotel owners, tour operators and other businesses have submitted thousands of damages claims to BP, claiming the spill has kept many tourists away during the lucrative summer season. BP has set up a $20 billion fund to handle the claims.
Local tourism officials have been trying to counter the perception that Florida’s beaches were sullied by the oil that blackened other parts of the Gulf coastline.
Florida’s nearly 1,200-mile shoreline is a major attraction in the Sunshine State’s $60 billion-a-year tourism industry, and Panama City boasts it is the most popular spring break destination for college students in the United States.
Additional reporting by Bruce Nichols in Houston; writing by Ross Colvin and Jeff Mason; editing by Will Dunham.