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Obama says Gulf Coast ‘open for business’

Presidential family visit aims to boost region

By Julie Pace
Associated Press / August 15, 2010

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — President Obama declared Gulf Coast beaches clean, safe, and open for business as he brought his family to the Florida Panhandle and promised residents that the government would not forget them once efforts to stop the leak are finished.

The president pledged to “keep up our efforts until the environment is cleaned, polluters are held accountable, businesses and communities are made whole, and the people of the Gulf Coast are back on their feet.’’

Obama is in the region for a brief weekend trip with his wife Michelle, his daughter Sasha (daughter Malia is at summer camp), and the family dog, Bo.

The Obama family’s 27-hour stop in the Sunshine State is as much a family vacation as it is an attempt by the president to convince Americans that this region, so dependent on tourism revenue, is safe for travel.

To reinforce the message that the water is clean despite absorbing 200 million gallons of oil, Obama and Sasha swam in the gulf, said White House spokesman Bill Burton. The dip was away from the view of reporters.

Obama said his family wanted to “enjoy the beach and the water, to let our fellow Americans know that they should come on down here.’’

The White House scheduled the trip after facing criticism that the president was not heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the gulf. Obama has vacationed in North Carolina this summer and is heading to Martha’s Vineyard later in August. Michelle Obama traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.

Gulf Coast residents and local officials are hoping that the president’s stop here will jump-start the tourism industry, which has been reeling since the spill. Though only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked water and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.

“It’s the biggest single commercial you could imagine,’’ Governor Charlie Crist said of the president’s visit.

Crist was among the local officials and small business owners who joined Obama earlier in the day at a meeting to discuss the pace of recovery efforts.

Obama, who is on his fifth trip to the region since the spill began, said he knows that Gulf Coast residents have been frustrated by the slow payment of claims from a $20 billion BP fund for those who have suffered damages as a result of the spill, and he pledged to rectify that.

On Thursday, Alabama’s attorney general sued BP and other companies associated with the spill, seeking unspecified economic and punitive damages. At least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and the other three main companies involved in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig.

The president made the trip as the government’s point man on the gulf spill said he wants additional testing before he orders BP to finish drilling a relief well that will allow the oil giant to plug the well for good.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told reporters that it could be late tomorrow or early Tuesday before officials know the results of those tests.

It would be Tuesday at the earliest before he gives his final order to proceed with the relief well and next weekend at the earliest before the relief well intercepts the blown-out well.

Once that happens, engineers will pump in mud and cement to plug the well from below, a process known as the bottom kill.

Before that happens, Allen wants to know if pressure inside the well has to be decreased. He has instructed BP to provide an analysis to determine if the bottom kill could risk damaging the well further without some kind of pressure relief.

BP began drilling its primary relief well in early May to permanently seal the ruptured well. But about two weeks ago, around the time the company had done a successful static kill by pumping mud and cement into the top of the well, executives began signaling that the bottom kill procedure might not be done.

In recent days, Allen suggested that that was a possibility. But pressure tests last week reaffirmed the original plan. “The relief well will be finished and the bottom kill will be executed,’’ he said.

Allen also said BP’s failed blowout preventer may be replaced before the relief well is completed. He said when it is, officials will take precautions to preserve it for evidence.

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