JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our exclusive online and on-air forum between BP and the American people about the oil spill.
The "NewsHour" partnered with Google and YouTube to gather questions submitted online by citizens from around the country.
Ray Suarez put those questions to BP's Bob Dudley at the company's headquarters in Houston. He's the president of the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization for the company. Here's part of their conversation.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, when we put out the call for questions, you might have guessed, we got thousands of responses. There's a lot of curiosity about the state of play in the Gulf. We got video. We got texts. And we got a lot of people who just came to the site to bolster certain questions that they wanted to be sure would be asked.
And I'm selecting one that's sort of representative from the Gulf.
Let's go first to Kirk from Houma, Louisiana.
KIRK CHERAMIE, United Houma Nation: Mr. Dudley, my name is Kirk Cheramie. I'm a member of the United Houma Nation, which is the state's largest Indian tribe in the state of Louisiana.
We have heard that you are going to make everyone whole. We have 6,000 families in the United Houma Nation that are now out of work because of this spill. Today, I was on Grand Isle on the beach. And, normally, on the Fourth of July week like this, we would have 1,000 people in the area that we were.
There was not a single person on the beach today. How are you going to make everyone whole? And at what point do you close the checkbook?
ROBERT DUDLEY, president and CEO, BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization: So, Kirk, I was down in Grand Isle about two weeks ago. And I saw oil on the beaches. And I saw it behind Grand Terre Island, and went out to Grand Bess and saw the oil in the marshes where the pelican rookeries were.
I see the devastation that's down there. We're going to make good on the claims from individuals and businesses down there. Anyone who has been impacted like you have said should go to the claims offices immediately, file the claims. We're -- just have some documentation for it.
We're writing the checks. We have written as of this morning $138 million of checks. So, we are going make good for it. We put aside $20 billion in an escrow account that will be used to pay claims not only just for now, but for as long as the impact is there on your businesses. And that will be not only after we shut the well off, but this cleanup is going to take some time.
So, it's not a one-time claim. It's claims that will go through the months where your businesses are impacted. We also realize there's a seasonality of business down there. And the summer is when -- that's where a lot of the earnings come from, and we're going to take that into account and try to make people whole.
We're there for the long term. There's no attempt to cap this. We haven't capped the well yet. And, in fact, it's hard to talk about a limit to claims certainly before we continue to have this spill in the Gulf.
RAY SUAREZ: We will go back to Houma, Louisiana, now to Michael.
MICHAEL DARDAR, vice principal chief, United Houma Nation: Mr. Dudley. My name is Michael Dardar. I am the vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation.
I have seen the cleanup effort in a variety of our communities. I have been down to the end of the South Pass at the mouth of the Mississippi. I have been in places like Bay Baptist. I have been on the beach at Port Fourchon. And what I have seen so far is a very disorganized cleanup effort.
I have seen miles of unattended boom. I have seen miles of boom washed up on the bank with no one around. I have seen pockets of oil in the marsh with no one there to clean it up.
My question is, how are you going to make this cleanup effort more proactive? How are you going to change the dynamics on the ground and make this effort more effective? Thank you.
ROBERT DUDLEY: I would say to Michael that the cleanup effort has not been perfect. We have had to respond and allocate resources from Louisiana all the way across to Florida. And we have had to do that sometimes very quickly. There's been gaps in the defenses, and you almost have to think about this as an invasion of oil to make sure that you're ready for it.
We have had some -- some devastating pictures, particularly in Louisiana, of the oil that's got into the marshes. The beaches are easier to clean. The marshes, particularly, are very sensitive. They take a long time. You flush them. We even have crews out there that clean blades of grass.
But it's something you have to be very, very careful about. We see boom that gets washed up. If it's out there, the tides come. The storm that we're having actually today with Hurricane Alex has raised high levels of waves all across the Gulf. It's disrupting the booms. We're going to have to go back and replace those booms.
We're going to bring in even airships or blimps in parts of the Gulf, so they can actually direct the ships. We're learning as we go. It hasn't been perfect, or you wouldn't see sights like that. But the effort has really doubled in the last month.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned Hurricane Alex. Let's talk a little bit more about that, because just a few yards away from where we're sitting, there's a torrential rain coming down, part of the arms of this storm that came ashore last night.
How did it affect your operations? And how long will it take to get things back to where they were before Alex came into the Gulf?
ROBERT DUDLEY: In terms of the storm itself, it has sent eight-to-12-foot waves that have come up from the southeast to the northwest right through the area where the operations are and the oil.
So, it's brought in oil, unfortunately, from the Panhandle of Florida to Louisiana right now a higher rate than it has been over the last few days. The waves do not allow us to skim. The booms are ineffective, and the dispersant can't be laid down. So, we're waiting until Saturday, when the waves come down. And we're going to be ready to be back out on the water.
Crews have been working in the evening and at night right now through these three days to clean the oil on the beaches.
RAY SUAREZ: After your boss, Tony Hayward, testified to Congress, it was announced that you were now in charge of the response by BP.
What's changed? There's this new entity called the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. Do you still report to Tony Hayward? Who do you work for?
ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, I'm on the board of BP, and I do report to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP. The original intent was to set this organization up after the time that the well was killed, and then we would set up a long-term restoration organization.
What's changed is, after the meeting at the White House, where we agreed that we would set up the escrow fund, put the assets aside, begin to manage the claims process over to the independent claims expert Ken Feinberg, those -- those activities required a lot of attention.
And, if anything, everyone should read it as, this organization is a signal to America the long-term intent of BP to make sure it meets its commitment for many years. It will put a lot of attention on making sure that we get the resources into the Unified Command with the Coast Guard.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's go back to our online audience.
Jen writes from Eugene, Oregon, "Why are BP staff gets a heads-up when U.S. government officials are going to show up, so that BP can roll out additional cleanup workers to the hardest-hit areas, only to remove them when the officials leave?"
Is that happening?
ROBERT DUDLEY: No, it's not. And I saw that report about the president's visit.
I actually looked into it myself and said, what was the schedule? We worked through -- of course, there's 40,000 people working on the Gulf Coast on the spill. There's a lot of subcontractors that work for us. And their crews and movements around are set up days in advance.
I actually checked into that to see if that was somehow some temporary piece. It was not. The crews that were -- when they were scheduled, they didn't really even know that the president was coming. He came down on relatively short notice. It may have looked like that, because they don't work right up until dark.
There is a period of time where the beach workers work. And they left later after he left that day. But there's no attempt at all to manipulate or put a show on for people. If there was, I mean, we were failing miserably. We have lots of people that visit and they see sometimes where there's these gaps.
RAY SUAREZ: Lane writes from San Francisco: "Have all of the blowout preventers associated with BP's other deepwater operations been tested since the big spill? Did they all pass? And how regularly will they be tested in the future to ensure their functionality when they absolutely have to work?"
ROBERT DUDLEY: Well, Lane is right. These things have to work. This is the last line of defense, and there's seven different barriers in this. And for whatever reason, this blowout preventer failed.
We -- and I imagine, like many in the industry, but certainly BP -- went worldwide looking at all of the blowout preventers that we had in activity and went way beyond that, and looked at our production facilities and all kinds of safety conditions, again, on all of our facilities around the world.
I imagine other oil companies will have done the same thing. This is a very unusual incident, this blowout preventer system to fail. It's about four stories high, 400 tons. The MMS, although they have widely been criticized, actually, these pieces of equipment are tested every 14 days in the U.S.
This is a very tragic and yet not well-understood accident.
RAY SUAREZ: Sonya asked, "Given all the information on the toxicity of the Corexit and the directives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Coast Guard, why is it still being used?"
ROBERT DUDLEY: So, the Corexit is a dispersant that's approved by the EPA. It's been used for a long time in the Gulf Coast. It's been -- I have been told that it's one of the common dispersants that's been used by the Coast Guard for more than 20 years in the Gulf Coast.
The toxicity levels -- many things have a toxicity level, including dish soap. So, there is a toxicity level to it. It's not far off of the toxicity levels of dish soap. And the lab tests show that.
What it does is it takes the oil, breaks it into very, very small droplets, which then increase the surface area in the warm waters, allow the bacteria to do its work and eat it. And it -- and that's what it's designed to do. That's working.
But Sonya is correct. Nowhere in the world have we ever had this amount of volume for this period of time being put in the water. So, it's an unknown. We don't know.
RAY SUAREZ: Bob Dudley is the president and CEO of BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. He's joined us at BP headquarters in Houston.
Mr. Dudley, thanks a lot.
ROBERT DUDLEY: Thanks, Ray.
JEFFREY BROWN: The forum, called America Speaks to BP, was Webcast live today and can be seen in its entirety on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.