Special Reports

Tampa Bay officials prepare for oil hitting here

MANATEE — The scenario: a catastrophic oil spill at Port Manatee after a storage tank fails, dumping 50,000 barrels of oil into Tampa Bay.

At risk are mangroves, sea grass, recreational and commercial fisheries, bird rookeries, marine mammals and shell fish.

The risk assessment: Such a catastrophic spill at Port Manatee would affect virtually all of Tampa Bay.

“Port Manatee is located in one of the most environmentally sensitive parts of Tampa Bay amid the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve to the north, and Bishop’s Harbor and Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve to the south.”

So wrote planners in 2006, imagining the worst possible scenario for an oil spill in the Tampa Bay area during planning sessions in creating the Sector St. Petersburg Area Contingency Plan for responding to an oil spill.

Of course, the catastrophe did not take place at Port Manatee, but one is almost certainly to be upon Florida after an explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, which has spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The same plan, which outlined the biggest fears should an oil spill occur in this region, is now being used as a template to prepare for the worst should the Deep Horizon oil spill come to the west coast of Florida.

The St. Petersburg ACP plan encompasses nearly the entire west coast of Florida, including Manatee County, and an incident command center has been established in St. Petersburg to begin implementing the plan in preparation of the spill reaching here.

The U.S. Coast Guard, along with officials from BP, have asked local authorities to assess the most environmentally sensitive lands to be identified for protection.

The use of boom and oil skimmers are outlined in the plan as the most effective methods of protection and cleanup, and contractors specializing in oil cleanup are on standby for rapid response should oil touch land here.

While those efforts will help minimize damage and should be undertaken, experts warn that residents should prepare for the reality that life along the Gulf of Mexico and on Florida’s West Coast would be altered for some time to come.

20 years of pain

The effects of the Deep Horizon oil spill are still very much in doubt, with Manatee emergency officials saying any impact locally is at a minimum 72 hours out, and possibly more.

But the likelihood of Manatee Public Safety officials declaring a local state of emergency, coupled with Gov. Charlie Crist’s state of emergency declaration last week for Manatee, is very real, according to Manatee Public Safety Capt. Larry Leinhauser.

“It is certainly something we may do as things develop, but right now we are taking the U.S Coast Guard’s lead according to the contingency plan in doing whatever is asked,” Leinhauser said last week.

Creating ACPs has been federally mandated since the disastrous March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, in which 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The carnage unleashed by the spill was so ferocious that the federal government mandated local governments come up with oil spill response plans.

Craig Tillery has spent much of the past 20 years dealing with the fallout from Valdez on behalf of Alaska’s attorney general’s office, and says the state is still feeling the effects of the spill 20 years later.

Oil is still present in soil samples and continues to wash up on shorelines, so much so that Alaska is again in negotiations for more funding from Exxon, in addition to a $900 million settlement reached in the years after the spill, Tillery said.

“We view it as a tragedy we are still feeling the effects from,” said Tillery.

A positive from Exxon Valdez, he noted, is the awareness it brought to oil spill preparation — something that is benefitting Gulf states now.

“When Valdez hit us, it came on us right away, and at that time there was little known about what to do in an oil spill,” he said. “It was frantic, chaotic. The Gulf seems to have more time to do as much as possible to mitigate the damage as much as possible.”

Efforts to combat the Deep Horizon spill in recent days have been extensive. As of Friday, 788,000 feet of boom had been deployed — but oil still has been reported on the shores of Gulf Coast states.

Locally, experts are waiting to see how currents affect the oil’s movement as it nears the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current. Forecasters say most of the spill is likely to be grabbed from the Loop and taken south, hitting the Florida Keys, before heading into the Atlantic Ocean and pushed onto the east coast of Florida.

No matter what happens, local officials say oil could become the reality on Florida’s West Coast beaches for some time to come, most likely in the form of tar balls.

They can range from pea-sized to 30 centimeters in diameter, according to the ACP, and are created as oil travels through the ocean picking up debris. They form tightly packed nuggets that can often look like balls, cow patties, or even thick black paint, said Suzanne Cooper, a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Commission planner.

The commission, along with dozens of government agencies in the area, including Manatee County, took part in creating the current ACP plan to combat the oil.

“Of course, it was designed as an emergency response to local oil spills,” said Cooper. “So this is different. This is more waiting to see what happens.”

And all the planning in the world is going to do little to stop tar balls from rolling in, according to Manatee County’s Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker.

He calls it “death by a thousand cuts.”

Boom will do little to stop the mess from coming ashore, so the thought of residents seeing a mass operation on the shores of Manatee as oil approaches may not be the reality. Instead of an oil slick, Hunsicker said, local shores will likely be hit with a frustrating and unpredictable peppering — possibly over decades — of tar balls.

“You are not going to see boom go up if it is not going to work,” said Hunsicker. “I think it is going to be more taking one cleanup at a time as they happen.”

Paying for it

BP has vowed, and in some instances already signed off on, grants to pay for cleanup efforts in Florida. But there is already skepticism about how much and for how long money will be coming in from the oil company.

“If we see something large hit, and it is cleaned up, we have already talked about not signing off on anything with BP saying that the job is complete,” said Leinhauser. “What are we going to do five years from now if a mass of tar balls hit our beaches?”

The public sector is not only starting to ask such questions, but the business community has already begun to weigh their options on surviving the spill, according to Steve Elliot, president of the Greater Tampa Bay ACP, an advocacy group specializing in educating businesses on preparing for and reacting to natural disasters.

With hurricane season approaching, Elliot thought that would be the focus in the coming months. Instead, the spill has taken center stage.

“This is so different. We are going to be dealing with business owners who wake up after a hurricane and their building is gone,” Elliot said. “This is the unknown.”

Elliot said any business operating on Florida’s beaches should already be coming up with a plan to assess what could be lost in revenue due to the oil spill, and looking at what avenues they can take with their insurance companies for any business interruption.

“If you own a bar, restaurant or hotel on the beach, it is never too early to start thinking about these things,” Elliot said.

On Friday, the state also issued a statement urging business owners not to sign documents provided by BP or anyone else until the extent of possible damages can be assessed in the coming weeks.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum also called on residents to report any fraud or price-gouging stemming from the spill at (866) 966-7266.

Still, as fears rise about the effects the spill will have the future of Florida, for the short term officials are urging residents not to panic and to enjoy the beach.

“Everything for now is safe — and everyone should come out and enjoy our beaches,” Leinhauser said.

Robert Napper, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024.

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