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Coast Guard opens oil spill command post in St. Petersburg

Coast Guard Capt. Tim Close and Timyn Rice of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection answer questions about the oil spill response.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Coast Guard Capt. Tim Close and Timyn Rice of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection answer questions about the oil spill response.

ST. PETERSBURG — A command post to respond to any spilled oil that touches Florida's west coast is open for business.

Sector St. Petersburg, the Coast Guard's local base, will house the officials and scientists whose job it is to help track the oil, plan a response and coordinate any cleanup from the Fenholloway River in Taylor County south to Everglades City in Collier County.

"We're reviewing strategies, we're tracking spill trajectories," said Capt. Tim Close, base commander. "We're planning how we're going to respond to the impact on the west coast of Florida."

It's the first Florida command post set up to deal with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Panhandle response is being handled by a Mobile, Ala., command post.

In a media briefing Wednesday, officials said there's no indication yet that oil will reach the west coast, but they're still preparing for the most likely threat: small streams of oil washing ashore on the state's most environmentally fragile lands.

"The best scientific information we have is that it's not going to be making landfall as one big black 20-mile oil slick," Close said. "It's going to be geographically dispersed into tar balls and blobs of residual oil floating along the currents."

Here's what would happen if oil is expected to make landfall:

• Officials said they should have 72 hours' warning that residual oil is headed for the Florida coast. They'll send out monitors to watch the coastline and, if possible, track the spill from the air using Coast Guard aircraft.

• Containment booms will be set up in advance to try and ward off the oil. But not all coastal areas will be equal.

Officials have already prioritized a list of the most sensitive lands. "The booming strategies will be focused on protecting the most environmentally sensitive areas," Close said.

• Federally approved oil spill response contractors are on standby to clean up oil that washes ashore. Environmental officials and volunteers are standing by to help wildlife.

• The Department of Environmental Protection is taking samples of water, sediment and shellfish to use as a baseline for tests in case oil reaches the west coast. Health officials will monitor the commercial fishing catches and will shut down fishing if the oil leads to any kind of contamination. Right now, officials said, conditions are safe for commercial and recreational fishing and boating.

• All those preparations and plans will be paid for in part by a $25 million grant promised by BP to Florida.

Over the past few days, Coast Guard and DEP officials have met with trustees from national and state wildlife refuge areas and county emergency management offices along the coast. Leaders also met with several environmental organizations, including Save Our Seabirds, the Sierra Club and Tampa Bay Watch.

Close stressed that officials are only planning; no actual operations have begun.

BP is moving to set up its own headquarters in Pinellas County. According to an e-mail the company sent to the county government, BP is looking for 100 hotel rooms, and for conference rooms: one to hold 30 people for an operations center, and another for a briefing center for 150 to 200 people. BP's first choice is St. Petersburg and its second choice is Clearwater, and it needs the rooms starting Friday through June 13.

Officials are relying on predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to track the oil spill. The weather plays a major role in the 72-hour projection of the spill's path, which changes each day.

"It's those things that can impact how it's going to spread," Close said.

Coast Guard opens oil spill command post in St. Petersburg 05/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 11:42pm]
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