Special Reports

Command base set up for Fla.'s west coast

ST. PETERSBURG — Officials Wednesday announced activation of a unified command base that will oversee preparations should an oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico threaten Florida’s west coast.

The St. Petersburg-based operation will oversee an area ranging from Taylor County to Collier County, said Capt. Tim Close, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. The area stretches about 400 miles along the Florida peninsula.

The command will be largely geared toward planning at first, he said, and will draw together a diverse group to try to effectively deal with oil pollution should it make landfall, he said.

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

He emphasized there was no prediction that oil would arrive within 72 hours; tracking the spill’s trajectory depends on weather forecasts based on that window of time.

“If there is impact, it’s not going to be in the form of one giant oil slick — it’s going to be in the form of residual from the spill,” Close said. “Tarballs, what’s referred to as ‘patties,’ a darker, thicker, gooier sticky mess, but not one great sheen.”

The oil slick in the gulf resulted from last month’s fire and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, off Louisiana.

During the past couple of days, Coast Guard and Florida officials have also consulted trustees from various national and state wildlife refuge areas, along with county emergency management officials.

More than 30 members of nongovernmental environmental organizations, such as Tampa Bay Watch, Save our Seabirds, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Sierra Club, have also been consulted, officials said. State Department of Environmental Protection officials already possess lists of environmentally at-risk sites, but are updating them with the help of local experts, said Timyn J. Rice, a DEP emergency response manager.

If anti-pollution devices are required, they could be arranged where they might protect the most fragile areas, he said.

“We are ready to conduct responses, coordinate cleanups, assess damages, and ultimately work toward restoration if that’s necessary,” Rice said.

DEP, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and others continue to study samples of water and sediment, along with fish, shellfish and wildlife habitats, in order to use as a baseline for monitoring should oil foul local waters, officials said.

The spill has already sent up prices of some types of fresh fish, said Ed Chiles, owner and chief executive officer of The Chiles Group and The Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants.

“We’re seeing price increases already in (mahi-mahi) particularly, not across the board, but we saw (mahi-mahi) spike up, said Chiles.

“Certainly, anticipating it is going to happen, I don’t think there’s any doubt. We’re trying to lock in domestic shrimp right now, we’re scrounging from a number of different suppliers.

“I’m very concerned about the implications of this, but the rise in seafood is something we worry the least about; we’re more concerned about the longterm ecological effects, the potential devastation of the coastal economy,” he said.

Manatee Department of Natural Resources specialists were in the process of compiling information about local at-risk ecological sites, said Capt. Larry Leinhauser, public information officer for the Manatee County Department of Public Safety.

Asked how many sensitive areas there are, Close replied, “There’s a lot. The whole Florida coastline is a series of environmentally sensitive areas.”

Sarasota Bay might be a prime place to add protection, said Gerry Swormstedt, chair of the Manatee-Sarasota group of The Sierra Club. She said she had not been contacted for official help, but offered a few thoughts on the matter.

She advocated protecting passes to the bay to prevent oil from rushing in to damage fragile seagrass beds.

“The seagrasses are the nurseries for fish,” she said.

The form in which oil might arrive — such as tar balls and patties — is problematic, said Cathy Harrelson, coastal task force chair for The Suncoast Sierra Club, based in St. Petersburg. She said she had attended a Coast Guard session Tuesday during which such matters were discussed.

“Booms don’t catch all of it, and around sensitive areas, it may or may not be effective,” she said. “These tar balls can actually be brought up with each storm over a period of years. We’re trying to plan for that.”

Meanwhile, The Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service is seeking people who live along or who are visiting coastal communities to watch for oiled wildlife, vegetation and beaches by becoming a Coast Watch volunteer.

Similar to the Crime Watch program, Coast Watch volunteers are community members who know the daily wildlife and plants that exist on their local beach. The “Coast Watchers” will assist BP, the state of Florida and partnering organizations in identifying beaches that need attention.

In other news, Sarasota City Manager Robert Bartolotta declared a state of emergency Wednesday. Sarasota County also has declared a state of emergency.

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