Special Reports

Manatee officials waiting, watching, hoping

MANATEE — Odds are that Manatee County will be affected by a giant oil spill in the gulf, but local emergency management officials said it will be at least 72-plus hours before oil impacts Florida’s west coast, they told county commissioners Tuesday.

“We don’t really know if it’s going to make landfall, that’s a significant point,” said Laurie Feagans, chief of Manatee County Emergency Management.

If it does, Manatee wouldn’t be affected until mid- or late- next week, said Capt. Larry Leinhauser, public information officer for the Manatee County Department of Public Safety, after the meeting. If the spill does arrive here, the result would be mostly tar-balls and paddies — fragments or congealed lumps of oil — washing ashore from below the surface, Feagans said.

She noted that any debris would be geographically widely-dispersed, so booms — devices designed to contain or soak up oil — would be largely ineffective.

The U.S. Coast Guard will be the lead agency handling decisions about the huge oil slick that resulted after a fire and explosion last month at a BP Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, Feagans said.

There was little information available late Tuesday about the size of the oil slick.

“We’re not even guess-timating the size,” said Michael De Nyse, a spokesman for the Unified Command Joint Information Center in Robert, La.

Locally, Coast Guard officials in St. Petersburg and BP Oil in Mobile, Ala. must approve all mitigation efforts.

However, it’s possible that Manatee County could escape the mess altogether: “Nobody really knows the potential yet,” Feagans told commissioners.

Other points Feagans made included:

n The county will not declare a local state of emergency unless officials think oil pollution will appear within 72 hours.

n Oil may enter the Gulf Stream and not impact Manatee County at all.

n If Coast Guard officials conclude the slick is heading here, they would decide how to protect local estuaries, which harbor delicate wildlife.

n If there is environmental damage, there will be no reimbursement from the federal government; BP is setting up a $25 million grant for each state affected and is contracting for cleanup.

n The United Way of Tampa Bay will coordinate the wildlife volunteer effort.

Manatee County is still in a “monitoring” mode, and has not yet activated its all-purpose emergency plan, which can be tailored to any type of disaster, said Leinhauser.

“Obviously, as things change, we’ll adjust things accordingly,” he said. “We’re ready to act if we need to act, but at this point, we’re still monitoring.” He emphasized that right now, none of the area’s beaches have been affected, and that hotels and restaurants are open for business as usual.

Asked what would happen if local officials declared a state of emergency, Feagans urged caution.

“If you declare too soon, you give the public the implication danger is imminent,” she said. “We don’t want to panic our citizens.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said of the situation, “This is the time government and environmental groups can work hand-in-hand to help protect our environment and wildlife community, and I’ll be the first one in line.”

The owner of a Sarasota towing and salvage company that also handles oil spills said he learned from his experience with an 1993 oil spill in Tampa Bay.

“I know from the ’93 spill that when crude went up on the beach, the good thing was — it was easy to clean up with bulldozers and trucks,” said Capt. Duke Overstreet, owner of Sea Tow Sarasota, which specializes in marine towing and salvage but also cleans up small oil spills as well.

“When you get it adrift, all around in tributaries and marshlands, it’s hard to clean up, and stays a long time,” he said.

If oil does wash ashore here, how well the area combats it depends upon its resources, and whether the debris could be deflected with booms and other equipment.

“In ‘93, we did a lot of deflecting,” he said.

At the Port of Manatee, emergency personnel were preparing for whatever might greet them in the gulf.

The U.S. Coast Guard decided it would pre-stage oil containment and recovery equipment at strategic port locations around the country, said port official Steve Tyndal.

“We lobbied the Coast Guard to locate one system at Port Manatee; it’s been there for close to 15 years, I would guess,” he said.

The Coast Guard has briefed port officials; the port’s trained personnel, along with those of some of the businesses there, are standing by in case their help is needed, said Port of Manatee Executive Director David McDonald.

“If we’re called to assist, we’re ready,” said McDonald.

In Tallahassee, Gov. Charlie Crist confirmed an announcement by Doug Suttles, chief executive officer at BP, that Florida will receive a $25 million block grant for state and local preparation and response costs related to the oil spill. “We will use the block grant from BP to take proactive measures to help prevent the devastating impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” the governor said. “We will continue to be vigilant and take every possible action to protect our beaches and the health and well-being of our residents and visitors.”

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