Special Reports

Manatee residents keep fearful eye on spill

MANATEE — The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico poses serious risk to Manatee’s coastline, but favorable wind conditions and the natural currents of the gulf may spare the area effects from the disaster.

However, nothing is certain when a damaged oil rig off the Louisiana coast is leaking an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf.

That was the sentiment Wednesday from weather forecasters, environmentalists and business owners in and around Manatee on the prospect of the oil spill converging on Florida.

As the U.S. Coast Guard prepared to set fire to the spill that has now been measured at about 100 miles long and 45 miles wide, locally many hoped for the best and feared the worst.

Florida is almost certain to see effects from the spill, but there is a good chance that Manatee and the west coast of Florida will be spared, according to Charlie Hunsicker, the county’s natural resources director.

That’s because the gulf’s powerful Loop Current is 100 miles off Manatee shores, and would most likely push the oil past the west coast. Unfortunately, the Florida Panhandle and Keys, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, are very much in danger, Hunsicker said.

The ocean currents are working in Manatee’s favor, but weather patterns can always change and create an environment where oil could escape and threaten Manatee, he said.

“We have better than a 50/50 chance of seeing no effect from this,” Hunsicker said of Manatee’s coast. “The concern is if the oil travels hundreds of miles, it will be so dispersed that it will be very hard to contain. There is no grand ending for this.”

If the worst happens, Manatee beaches could have to suffer oil pollution in small, uncontainable doses, Hunsicker warned.

“This could end up being death by a thousands cuts as the oil works ashore one drop at a time. That is the sad part from the start,” Hunsicker said.

Already in Manatee, and across the Tampa Bay area, residents have complained of a stench that some feel may be related to the spill. And plans by the U.S. Coast Guard to set the oil on fire have brought fears about air quality here.

But there may be some good news for Florida’s west coast in the coming days, as winds are expected to be blowing west across the gulf for several days, according to Logan Johnson, a meteorologist stationed at the National Weather Service’s Ruskin office.

Locally, many are fearing for the environment and business interests that could suffer greatly from the spill if oil touches land in Manatee.

“We really have major concerns. We’re on high alert,” said Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch director Suzi Fox.

Endangered sea turtles are in the gulf preparing any day to begin the difficult process of nesting on Florida’s beaches, Fox said.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” she said.

Commercial fishing businesses in Cortez are also keeping a close eye on the spill, bracing for any effect it may have on fisheries.

“I really don’t know there is anything we can do about it,” said Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez. “All we can do is hope.”

Meanwhile, the fallout from the spill has also turned political, with some expecting that the disaster will certainly bring pause to anyone advocating drilling off Florida’s coast anytime soon.

“I think that anybody who was seriously considering opening up Florida’s coast for drilling is going to have to take a good look at what has happened,” said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.

Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said he has long opposed drilling off Florida’s coast, and recalled being told in the past by oil company representatives that such a spill could never happen.

“I think back to being assured that there is a 100 percent chance that something like could never happen,” Buchanan said. “Well, it has happened.”

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