President Barack Obama took a dip in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, and reassured Americans that the government will stand by coastal residents as the massive oil-spill clean-up forges ahead.
The president, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their younger daughter, Sasha — daughter Malia is away at summer camp — travelled to Panama City Beach in Florida to talk to local officials and ebusinss leaders, and highlight the region’s tourist attractions.
“Oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf,” said Obama, speaking at a regional US Coast Guard headquarters.
“But I’m here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we are not going anywhere until it is.”
Obama said that he wanted to deliver the message directly to residents of the Gulf Coast, which he has visited four times since an April explosion on a BP-leased oil rig triggered the disaster.
“I made a commitment in my visits here that I was going to stand with you … until you have fully recovered from the damage that has been done. And that is a commitment my administration is going to keep,” he said.
The president was emphatic: “I won’t be satisfied until the environment has been restored, no matter how long it takes.”
US officials are “going to continue to monitor and remove any oil that reaches the surface, and clean up any oil that hits the shore,” he said. “As a result of the clean-up effort, beaches all along the Gulf Coast are clean, safe, and open for business.”
And Obama also demanded that BP speed up processing of compensation claims.
“I want to be clear about this: any delays — by BP or by those managing the new fund — are unacceptable, and I will keep pushing to get these claims expedited,” he said.
Earlier this week BP made its first deposit into the $20-billion Gulf of Mexico oil-disaster fund intended to compensate thousands of residents and businesses hit by the largest maritime oil spill of all time.
During the height of the spill Obama urged his fellow Americans to continue taking vacations in the region, famous for its sugar-white beaches, and heavily dependent on tourism.
Obama later went for a swim with daughter Sasha at Panama City Beach, away from the public and press cameras, with only an official photo of the pair — heads bobbing just above the water line — issued by the White House.
While the image might go far to reassure Americans that Gulf waters are safe, Obama had stressed he would take a presidential plunge in private.
The last time Obama, who is physically fit, was photographed swimming without a shirt was in December 2008, shortly before he took office. The pictures were broadly circulated and used on the cover of news magazines.
Obama is scheduled to return to Washington on Sunday, the White House said.
The trip comes after US officials announced that energy giant BP’s runaway well has been sealed, and that they are moving ahead with plans to make sure it’s truly “killed” by pumping cement in through a relief well under the Gulf of Mexico.
Pressure tests showed that the well no longer has “direct communication with the reservoir” thanks to a “top kill” operation which pumped drilling mud and cement down through the wellhead, US spill chief Thad Allen said.
Allen on Saturday issued a directive for BP to run a series of tests and provide plans to ensure the safety of the “bottom kill” operation, before he gives the green light for a relief well to resume drilling.
The huge spill threatened the fish and wildlife-rich Gulf Coast with environmental ruin and plunged residents of coastal communities into months of anguish over their livelihoods and the region’s future. — AFP