NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly five months since the start of the Gulf oil spill, the end appears in sight at the site of the troubled Macondo well.
"Four days from now, it could be all done," said U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), the national incident commander.
Drilling of the relief well is expected to be finished within the next day. Once heavy mud is pumped in, it help permanently seal the damaged well within four days. What remains unfinished, though, is the business of tracking tens of millions of gallons of oil, and millions of gallons of dispersant, let loose on the Gulf.
"In short, folks want to know if it's okay to eat, swim, or fish," said Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "That's the kind of information we are committed to identifying."
With that in mind, on Wednesday, Allen and Lubchenco announced the formation of a long-term monitoring program for the Gulf of Mexico. The goal is to track any remaining oil and dispersants underwater.
"There are concerns about how much oil is in the water, the amount of hydrocarbons, how that's affecting the Gulf," Allen said.
"We have and will continue to monitor, sample and study the oil and dispersants from the near shore to the open ocean, from the surface to the sea floor," Lubchenco said.
News about the sea floor got a lot of attention this week, after scientists at the University of Georgia said they found oil -- two inches thick in some areas -- clinging to the bottom of the Gulf. Lubchenco acknowledged the findings on Wednesday.
"We are getting reports that oil is there and that's very valuable information and that has been folded into the monitoring that we have underway," she said.
Lubchenco also defended the government's earlier assertion that only 25 percent of the roughly 200 million gallons of oil spilled remain unaccounted for in the Gulf.
"It is not a characterization of what's out there now because it is continued to be recovered and continued to be naturally degraded," she said. "That's why this monitoring effort that is underway is critically important -- to give us a sense of what remains out there and how fast it's disappearing."
Those involved in the Louisiana seafood industry welcomed the news of further testing of the Gulf waters.
"We want to be vigilant because we want to know exactly what's going on," said Ewell Smith, with the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board.
The group of scientists helping to monitor the Gulf include several from Louisiana universities, such as Tulane and LSU, as well as federal and state researchers.