Special Reports

Loop current may have big say in where oil goes

Winds expected to shift and ease in the next few days could buy some time for weather-beaten crews battling to bottle up and burn off a massive slick of rust-colored crude before it fouls fragile marshes and sugary beaches across four Gulf Coast states.

But that brief reprieve could soon send a nasty ripple effect toward South Florida — pushing outlying plumes of polluted surface water and patches of tar balls into the Gulf of Mexico’s powerful loop current. That would propel the mess across the mangrove islands, seagrass beds and coral reefs of the Florida Keys, then up toward Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and beyond.

Oceanographers tracking the BP oil slick -- still expanding from an uncapped well belching an estimated 210,000 gallons a day -- said Monday that questions about the loop’s impact have increasingly turned from if to when.

Satellite images suggest the loop, which moves seasonally, is creeping north, spinning off small whirls of current that University of Miami oceanographer Nick Shay said may already have drawn in the slick’s leading, and lightest, edge.

Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida, who updates daily tracking models, pinpoints the loop still about 30 miles south of the slick.

But, he stressed, “The immediacy of the collision of these two features is real. Will it happen in a day, two days, three days, a week, two weeks? I don’t know. I’m not willing to say that yet.”

For now, the focus of Florida’s top political, environmental and emergency managers remains firmly on the Gulf Coast.

Gov. Charlie Crist Monday extended his state of emergency order to 13 more counties, bringing the total to 19, as the spreading oil slick threatened Florida’s coast.

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

A state of emergency exists for the counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Manatee, Sarasota, Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough.

With the slick and tar balls just 50 miles offshore in Florida, the state’s top environmental official warned residents to brace for impacts to beaches and fisheries -- from oyster beds in the Panhandle to, at least potentially, the shallow reefs of the Florida Keys.

Michael Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, echoed concerns raised by scientists and fishing captains that the uncapped gusher could pump pollution up both coasts.

“The magnitude of this spill is daunting,” he 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.’ ‘’

BP already has workers processing claims in Florida, according to Lucia Bustamante, the oil company’s external-affairs director.

“There is a claims process that is very clear and it has been posted publicly,” she said at an emergency meeting in Panama City. “What I can tell you is to keep proper documentation of everything. You are going to need it.”

Attorneys general from the five Gulf Coast states are asking President Barack Obama to take legal steps necessary to lay blame for the massive Gulf oil leak.

Chris Bence, a spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Troy King, said a letter was prepared asking the president to clear the way for possible court action by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and his peers from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.

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, which began when one of its rigs exploded two weeks ago off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 people.

In related developments Monday:

Ÿ Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for a controversial new offshore oil drilling project off the Santa Barbara coast.

Ÿ Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said that seafood currently being harvested in Florida is safe and has not been impacted by the oil spill.

Ÿ Procter & Gamble Co. has rushed 1,000 bottles of Dawn dishwashing liquid to the Gulf of Mexico region to help clean wildlife soiled by the massive oil spill. Wildlife rescue workers have used Dawn for more than three decades, reported The Associated Press.

No oil from BP’s sunken Deep Horizon well has reached shore, incident leaders said during a Monday news conference, but rough weather continued to hamper efforts to contain the oil leaking from the destroyed rig.

Chemical dispersants seemed to be helping to keep oil from floating to the surface, but crews haven’t been able to activate a shutout valve underwater. And it could take another week before a 98-ton concrete-and-metal box is placed over one of the leaks to capture the oil.

More ominously, it could take three months to drill sideways into the well and plug it with mud and concrete.

The accident is the worst U.S. oil spill since the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, leaking nearly 11 million gallons of crude.

In Florida, approximately 87,800 feet of boom has been placed along the Panhandle and an additional 19,000 feet were expected to be placed by the end of Monday. Preparations are being made for 120,000 feet more.

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.”

The loop current pushes into the Gulf in a clockwise swirl, spilling into the Straits of Florida through the Keys and then back north in the Gulf Stream.

Federal experts tracking the spill, which appears to have shrunk in satellite photos -- likely the result of heavy seas and oil sinking as it evaporates into heavy lumps -- have not yet worked loop effects into their projection. But they forecast out only 72 hours.

Shay, a professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said a weather front expected in 24 to 48 hours will likely begin pushing the spill away from the Gulf Coast and toward the loop’s outer boundary.

He said he couldn’t predict when, or how much, of the slick might be drawn in, but ‘‘this heightens my concerns. I hope we’re all wrong, of course.”

Wind, waves and sun help degrade oil but the loop, chugging along at 2 to 6 miles per hour, moves material so quickly that South Florida could see a spate of tar balls at the very least. Weisberg’s models and studies show material in the loop could be in the Keys within a week.

“It’s a matter of about two weeks to get to Miami and another week or so to Cape Hatteras,” he said. “Had this blowout been a little farther south, it would be in the loop current already.”

The current could also act as a protective boundary for much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, scientists said. It runs so deep that it bends around a shallow coastal shelf that extends 50 miles or more into the Gulf.

On the Atlantic side, however, the Gulf Stream flows much closer in and prevailing winds tend to push things ashore, from seaweed to cruise ship trash.

“If the winds shift and it gets entrained in the loop current, we’ll see it in South Beach,” said Hans Graber of the University of Miami Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing. “No question about it.”

Miami Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Lesley Clark, Joseph Goodman, along with Anita Lee of The (Biloxi) Sun Herald and Kevin Yamamura of The Sacramento Bee, contributed to this report.