Special Reports

Officials prepare for chance that oil spill will hit Manatee, Florida west coast

ST. PETERSBURG -- Officials today announced activation of a unified command that will oversee preparations should an oil slick from the Gulf of Mexico foul the west coast of Florida.

The latest predictions from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration indicate no impact to the western coast of Florida, from Taylor County to Collier County, within the next 72 hours, officials said.

But the oil slick resulting from last month’s fire and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and well continues to threaten the state, necessitating a coordinated effort among the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and BP.

In meetings over the last couple days, the Coast Guard and Florida DEP have spoken with trustees from various national and state wildlife refugee areas, along with every county emergency management office on the West Coast of Florida, officials said.

The agencies also met with over 30 members of non-governmental environmental organizations including Tampa Bay Watch, Save our Seabirds, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Sierra Club and others.

“We are standing up a unified command, consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Department of Environmental Protections and BP, to facilitate planning and identify resource requirements to ensure a robust multi-agency response,” said Capt. Tim Close, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. “We are planning for the worst case, but hopeful any impact will be substantially less than that, if at all,” said Close.

Meanwhile, the barrier islands south of Gulfport appeared relatively unscathed today from a brush Monday with British Petroleum oil covering 2,000 square miles of the Gulf.

Bill and Will Seeman, father and son businessmen in Gulfport, wanted to check conditions on Chandeleur Islands after receiving a report that the oil had come ashore Monday. They took a ride to the islands this morning in their 28-foot open fisherman.

The sky reflected a hundred shades of blue off calm Gulf waters. About 33 miles due south of Gulfport, the Seemans encountered what appeared to be oil broken up by the dispersant that disaster responders are spraying from the air and even using to break up oil as it gushes from broken rig pipe on the ocean floor.

The material looked like a flourescent orange highway winding along a portion of the islands’ west side near the southern tip. Will Seeman idled the boat so Bill Seeman could scoop up samples. The material beaded into very small, clear gelatinous droplets on his hand.

Seeman eventually spotted thin brown patches of oil within the fluorescent stream. Island marshes and sand appeared clean. Pelicans nested behind booms placed around one spit of marsh.

Seas were flat, the sky sunny. But they encountered no other recreational boaters, only Mississippi Department of Marine Resources vessels anchored on the north side of Ship Island.

“I’m relieved,” Bill Seeman said. “I have to say, there appears to be little permanent damage, which is encouraging.”

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