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Gov. Crist declares state of emergency for Manatee, other coastal counties

MANATEE — Gov. Charlie Crist today declared a state of emergency for Manatee and Sarasota counties, as the state prepares for a possible landfall for crude oil that continues to spew out of the ocean floor.

Crist had earlier declared an emergency for Panhandle counties, and today he extended the coverage area further south to include Manatee, Sarasota and the rest of the Tampa Bay region.

Local officials are planning to meet Tuesday with a U.S. Coast Guard team in St. Petersburg in order to prepare for whatever might be in the offing as a result of the spill.

“We’ve got conference calls going on today, we’re meeting with the (U.S.) Coast Guard tomorrow, they’re in charge of the incident,” said Bob Tollise, HAZMAT security chief for Manatee County Public Safety Department.

“We’re pulling all our departments together as a county, trying to come up with a plan,” said Tollise. “It’s difficult because of the fact the leak has not stopped, it’s an ongoing leak.”

“We’re doing everything we can on our end to prepare for whatever is coming our way,” he added.

Even though so far there has been no impact to local beaches as a result of the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the gulf on April 20, officials are monitoring the situation because of the ensuing environmental disaster.

“We are monitoring the situation in the Gulf,” said Steve Simpson, operations officer for the Manatee County Emergency Management Division. “We have had numerous conference calls with the Coast Guard and the Florida Department of Emergency Management.”

Local emergency officials are evaluating reports, coordinating their forces, and keeping in touch with municipalities along the beach, he added.

Florida's top environmental official and other politicians say the state is bracing for pollution and damage to hit the state's beaches and its oyster, bait and sport fisheries.

"It is an enormous mess. It is unbelievable -- the magnitude of this thing. Clearly every effort needs to be put on plugging the hole up and stopping the bleeding,'' Crist said.

"A shark can outrun this plume. An oyster is not going to," said Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor. "It is going to have an impact. There's no question on it -- some impact on the fisheries. We just hope it's less. It all depends. Nobody knows."

Said Florida CFO Alex Sink, a Democrat also running for governor: "We must treat this like a Category 5 hurricane -- preparing our coastlines for the worst economic and environmental disaster imaginable and quickly ensuring that our businesses and citizens can get the help they will need."

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole said BP is the ‘‘responsible party'' under federal law that should pay oil costs and damages associated with containing and cleaning the oil spill that began when one of their rigs exploded two weeks ago off the Louisiana coast. Along with Mississippi and Alabama, Louisiana faces far more threats from the oil spill than Florida.

But Florida won't be unscathed.

"The magnitude of this spill is daunting," Sole said. "We still have an ongoing release of some 5,000 barrels of oil occurring just 50 miles off Louisiana. It's not like ‘We had a spill. We're cleaning it up and it'll be over.' The concern is that [the oil spill] may come back on shore and cause subsequent impacts to our resources."

If the gusher isn't contained in the next few weeks, Sole said, the oil slick could spread south and affect South Florida. That could mean the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- home to the world's third-largest barrier reef -- could sustain damage.

Right now, Sole said, an oil slick -- not a full-fledged soaking spill -- and ‘‘slight tar balls'' could make a landing on Florida's shores within three days.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL., says the oil spill could be an environmental and economic disaster for Florida because the state's tourism industry depends on having the beautiful beaches.

He made the comments before attending a tourism conference in Central Florida on Monday.

Nelson added: "We have an ecological and environmental disaster in the making."

So far, BP has strung up about 15 miles of containment booms off Florida. But Sole said it's probably not enough because a six-county region east of there needs protection. And even the booms aren't going to be enough.

"Booms are not fail safe and actually are very prone to fail. A one-knot current can cause a product to go under a boom or over a boom," Sole said. "A little bit of chop will no longer allow that boom to be as successful. So while they're appropriate to get deployed to protect sensitive areas, candidly, we cannot boom off the peninsula or the panhandle of Florida to prevent landfall of the product."

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