Special Reports

Manatee officials continue to plan for oil emergency (with photo galleries)

MANATEE — As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill edges closer, county officials are continuing to plan in the event it reaches Manatee County shores.

“The planning continues daily,” said Capt. Larry Leinhauser, public information officer for the Manatee County Department of Public Safety.

A briefing is slated for Tuesday at the Emergency Operations Center with environmental groups and agencies from both Manatee and Sarasota counties, he said. Representatives of a half dozen or so have indicated they may attend, he said.

Among those are Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Protection; Wildlife Inc.; Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium; Native Plant Society; and Solutions to Avoid Red Tide, according to a partial list supplied by the county.

Leinhauser noted that the discussion probably will touch on “the state of the union, as far as volunteers are concerned.”

“It’s to let the local environmentalists know what we’re doing; everybody by now is aware of what they can do,” he said.

He referred to strict guidelines limiting wildlife rescue to trained professionals that have been issued by the St. Petersburg unified command, lead by the U.S. Coast Guard and charged with overseeing handling of any oil that washes ashore.

“The more heads, the better,” he said. “They can contribute things somebody might not have thought of, we want to hear.”

As of Thursday, the closest oil sheen was approximately 120 miles from Bradenton, according to John Ewald, public affairs specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Another chore county officials have taken care of is confirmation of a list of “debris contractors,” professional companies that are contracted to clean up in the event of an emergency.

“Basically, we confirm those guys are ready to go if we need them,” Leinhauser said.

Typically, such companies help dispose of debris after a storm. If the emergency involves an oil spill, they would be picking up oil, tar balls, grease, sand and vegetation, Leinhauser said.

“Whatever is damaged by the spill, they can pick up anything,” he said. “All personnel are fully trained at this type of thing.”

Thursday, a shorebird expert was out counting eggs and nests at Anna Maria Island.

The findings will be forwarded to the Coast Guard to help it identify areas most in need of clean up should oil wash up here, said Marianne Korosy, who is affiliated with the Florida Audubon Society and is also a wildlife technician for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Beaches where birds are nesting are priority beaches for clean up,” she said.

She accompanied Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Protection, who was happy with the counts of least terns, black skimmers and snowy plovers.

“Everybody in the country right now is talking about the birds on Anna Maria Island,” Fox said. “It’s like the highest number of nesting we’ve had since I started counting.”

Fox also counted nesting turtles, taking extra precautions to mark their nests carefully.

“We want to make sure we get every little piece of data out of these nests,” she said. “If we get oil, we’re going to want to get the data from these nests to see how the oil may have affected them.”

The oil spill began after an April fire and explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig and well off the coast of Louisiana.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.