MANATEE — The chances of the oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion coming ashore in Manatee County are remote at this time, but with the right conditions, it is a possibility.
The winds were pushing the miles-long slick of crude toward the environmentally sensitive Louisiana coastline, but Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has declared an emergency for five Panhandle counties to put emergency crews on alert.
Local emergency responders are monitoring the situation and are ready to implement their plan if necessary, said Bob Tollise, hazardous material and security chief with the Manatee County Public Safety Department.
“But it’s like stopping red tide,” Tollise said. “It’s not just on the surface, it’s emulsified in the water column.
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“We could put every foot of boom (a floating barrier used to prevent the oil floating on top of the water from spreading), but we can’t stop the sub-surface oil,” he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard would be the lead government agency handling any response to an oil spill coming ashore, along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but Tollise said his department, with help from the area fire districts, would help provide the feet on the ground.
“We’ll stop what we can,” he said. “Then we’ll have to clean up.”
The cleanup not only would mean getting the oil off the sandy beaches, but trying to repair the damage to the marine ecosystems along the county shoreline.
“It will affect a wide variety of marine life within the Gulf, from plankton to whale sharks,” said Hayley Rutger, spokeswoman for Mote Marine Laboratory.
“There can be direct and indirect effects,” Rutger said.
Plankton is the beginning of the food chain, and if the microscopic algae and protozoa are killed off, the higher animal forms will suffer.
Also, the oil emulsified in the water column would be harmful to the gills and lungs of fish, turtles and marine mammals.
Another danger is oil damaging the sea grass beds and mangroves that serve as nurseries for marine life.
The Mote Beach Condition Report program has been expanded to include the oil spill situation, along with red tide, rip currents, water condition and fish kills and the presence of any respiratory irritation along 33 beaches from the Panhandle to Collier County.
The reports can be viewed at www.mote.org/beaches.
The economic impact of an oil spill coming ashore would be devastating, said John Stevely, the area Florida Sea Grant Extension agent.
A Florida Ocean and Coastal Council 2008 report showed the contribution of the coastal economy to Florida’s total economy to be about $562 billion.
Stevely said if the oil slick does make it to the Gulf coast, the Florida Sea Grant program, which is part of the University of Florida, would provide educational and research assistance.
With cleanup and economic costs possibility running into the millions, the county would depend on state and federal assistance.
“I assume it would be like any other event,” said Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. “Someone would have to pay, and we would expect reimbursement.”
Hunzeker said the various local government agencies have been involved with practice exercises to prepare for different natural disasters.
“We have state of the art departments,” he said, “and I have great confidence in their ability to handle any situation.”