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Tampa Bay officials prepare for oil that may never arrive

ST. PETERSBURG — The Coast Guard officer in charge of oil-fighting along Florida's west coast sent more than a mile of boom material last month to Louisiana.

That might sound strange coming from Capt. Timothy Close, who says he is "aggressively preparing" to protect the Tampa Bay area from the massive gulf oil spill. But it also defines the state of the war against oil here.

The Coast Guard, state officials and emergency management directors are talking daily in conference calls, looking for oil and readying their plans for boats, booms and coastal cleanups. But so far, the oil has not arrived.

Tampa Bay area officials generally express optimism about their preparations, but it's too early to know for sure if the area would suffer from the poor planning, lack of coordination and bad communication that several local officials complained of in Louisiana and Alabama.

As experts and regular folks keep their eyes out for oil on Florida's west coast, a pressing question remains: Will the Tampa Bay area be ready?

And will the day come when we desperately want that 7,000 feet of boom material back?

• • •

The Coast Guard's C-130 airplanes are making regular flights off Florida's west coast, looking for any evidence of the BP oil spill, and at least three ships are patrolling off the coast.

Time, so far, has been on Tampa Bay's side. If the oil shifts toward Tampa Bay, it could travel for weeks before getting here. That helps, because oil breaks down over time.

As an oil slick bobs atop waves, much of it evaporates. Microbes actually feed on the oil. By the time it gets to Tampa Bay, it would probably be in the form of tar balls.

"It's not really as bad as that big, black slick of oil and the horrible pictures of birds getting covered with it," Close said.

And we may not get any. Tampa Bay could benefit from the loop current that flows 100 miles or more off shore, which could keep oil away.

"We're being told … it still looks like our chances are low here," said Pinellas emergency management director Sally Bishop.

Even though the threat is considered low, emergency planners say they're getting ready. Each county has had representatives meet in person with Coast Guard and state officials to update existing oil spill plans. All the counties participate in a seven-day-a-week conference call with updates on the position of the oil.

The Coast Guard has established a "trigger zone'' some 90 miles off the west coast. If oil moves into that zone, it will trigger a more intense response.

Close said the 13-county St. Petersburg Sector, with hundreds of miles of coastline from Taylor to Collier counties, has about 27,000 feet of booming material on hand. He said it made sense to send the 7,000 feet to Louisiana because they have a pressing need right now. If the Tampa Bay area had a pressing need, he said, we would all be upset "if Jacksonville was hoarding boom because 'Oh well, maybe some day …' "

If oil comes closer, "vessels of opportunity" could begin working local waters, just as they have closer to the spill. How many ships?

"You'd have to tell me exactly what the threat was," Close said.

The Coast Guard also has contacted Diversified Environmental Services in Tampa about cleaning oiled ships before they come into the Port of Tampa, in case there is a time when ships can't get around the spill.

"It's something the Coast Guard will manage. They will not let any ship come in and contaminate something,'' said Gerry McCormick Jr., operations manager for Diversified.

Some residents have suggested setting up a boom across the mouth of Tampa Bay, but it's not feasible, Close said. For one thing, the Tampa Bay area has strong currents and winds, and the boom might not stay in place. And putting it up would mean closing off shipping to the Port of Tampa — a serious economic blow.

Close said much of the Tampa Bay planning focuses on how to fight tar balls, which are nasty black nuggets of hardened oil, but easier to remove from a shoreline than a thick coating of crude oil.

If oil drifts toward the trigger zone, it's likely that Close would order a shore cleanup before it arrives. Then the tar balls would be easier to remove.

If tar balls come in, Close said, officials would put booms around environmentally sensitive areas first, such as estuaries and mangrove shores. The booms would not go up and down the beaches, partly because tar balls are easier to clean up there, Close said.

Mangroves are much harder to clean because ''in some cases it would be more damaging to that kind of environment to trample in," said Timyn Rice of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In most cases, the Coast Guard office will direct where to put these booms, based on the recently revised plans. There are exceptions. Hillsborough Emergency Management director Larry Gispert said the county already has 1,000 feet of boom on hand to protect the environmentally sensitive Cockroach Bay, and the Coast Guard is fully aware of the plan.

County officials in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties say they've been impressed so far with the Coast Guard's planning and communication. Hillsborough County's Larry Gispert, a veteran manager with a reputation for being outspoken, said "we've been up to date with them, we feel comfortable that they understand what needs to be done."

Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent also praised the Coast Guard for excellent monitoring of the spill but said the official plans don't protect enough of Hernando County's sensitive areas.

"We think it needs to go further because in Hernando County most of our coastline, the majority of our coastline, is salt marshes." He, like others, hopes the Tampa Bay area suffers no damage. But if the oil spill does drift here, he's not sure about the conventional wisdom that says the Tampa Bay area would only get tar balls. "I think that's a lot of wishful thinking. I don't think that's necessarily true."

He'd like to see if Hernando County can buy booms and other material, and added, "the bottom line is that BP is going to have to reimburse that." Others said there's no guarantee of reimbursement.

One thing officials on Florida's west coast agrees on: They've never seen an oil spill like this one. And another thing: They've never seen a hurricane rip into an oil spill like this one. No one seems to have a good prediction of whether this would help matters by dissipating the oil or worsen them by sloshing the oil onshore.

Bishop, of Pinellas County, would be happy if we never find out.

"I hope that we don't have another unprecedented event," she said. "By having a hurricane, it does that."

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Tampa Bay officials prepare for oil that may never arrive 06/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:50pm]
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