Stephen Leatherman has seen every kind of beach in America, and he really likes the ones in Florida. The man known as Dr. Beach usually ranks them among the prettiest in America. This year he picked Pinellas County's own Caladesi Island as No. 1. If oil companies start drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, that's likely to change. "We've got some of the finest, whitest sand in the world," said Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University in Miami. "Oil doesn't seem to go with that. … This could lower the value of our beaches."
Leatherman has seen what offshore drilling can do to a beach. Texas beaches, for instance, "tend to be the trash can of the gulf." Waste from the western gulf's wells — everything from empty oil drums to tar balls — washes up there.
Allowing drilling in the eastern gulf — a move now touted by President Bush, GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Gov. Charlie Crist — carries risks for the environment as well as for Florida's economy.
Over the past 40 years, oil companies have drilled thousands of wells across the western and central gulf, and there are now about 3,800 offshore structures there. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been willing to overlook the trash and tar in exchange for cash and jobs.
But Florida's $50-billion tourist industry depends on clean beaches. The slightest taint — say, a Red Tide bloom — can empty the hotels. That's why in the past Florida politicians from both parties have been as quick to embrace drilling as they have been to shake hands with Fidel Castro.
"The beaches of Florida are like the mountains of Colorado. They are somewhat our defining feature, and anything that threatens to jeopardize those beaches raises great concerns," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat and longtime drilling opponent who says he is "confounded" to see the issue revived.
In the late 1990s, when Chevron proposed drilling in the gulf 25 miles south of Pensacola, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that if there were a spill, "there is as great as a 47 percent chance that the slick would reach Florida's coastal waters before dissipating."
Chevron hired Florida State oceanographer Wilton Sturges to study the spill potential. Sturges said he found "that under worst-case conditions the spilled stuff could be brought ashore much faster than any response team could get there to clean it up. It is a real crapshoot about when it might happen, of course. Most bad things happen during nasty weather, when the difficulties of cleanups are at their worst."
For instance, Hurricane Katrina ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, destroying 115 oil platforms, significantly damaging 52 more and setting adrift 19. More than 7-million gallons of petroleum products spilled, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. By comparison, in 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled 11-million gallons in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
It wasn't a hurricane that caused the Ixtoc I spill, the worst in modern history.
Ixtoc occurred in 1979 just north of the Mexican coast. A rig blew out, caught fire and collapsed. The fire and scattered debris made capping the well so difficult that it continued spewing for nearly a year, dumping more than 3-billion barrels of oil. Two months later, the first tar balls washed ashore 600 miles away in Texas. Soon every beach in the state was coated. Tourism dropped by 60 percent.
That was 20 years ago. Drilling is much safer now, said David Mica of the pro-drilling Florida Petroleum Council.
"We've come a long way since then," he said. "I sleep pretty good at night knowing mankind is doing a good job protecting our resources. Of course, there are no guarantees."
Big spills like Ixtoc are rare. Smaller ones are not.
The Coast Guard documented more than 239,000 oil spills across the gulf between 1973 and 2001. In one study of the area where Chevron wanted to drill, the Minerals Management Service predicted that over the next 40 years there could be up to 870 spills of 2,000 gallons or less, which "is expected to result in small pollution events that could temporarily affect the enjoyment or use of some beach segments."
Critics like Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a Pensacola group that has opposed offshore drilling for more than a decade, say they are not as concerned about oil spills as they are about what she calls "the routine, everyday, day-after-day pollution they dump in the water."
When the rigs first drill into the ocean floor, the crews use fluids called "drilling muds" which include toxic substances including barium, chromium and arsenic. The EPA found that such discharges into the eastern gulf would "introduce significant quantities of contaminants to these relatively pristine waters."
In 2002, the Mobile Press-Register tested grouper and other fish caught around Alabama's offshore rigs. They contained so much mercury that they would not be acceptable for sale to the public under federal guidelines. The source: the drilling muds, which left mercury in the sea-bottom in concentrations as high as that found at Superfund sites.
Then there are all the undersea pipelines and the onshore facilities that would probably have to be built, all of which can leak as well, Leatherman pointed out.
"There's a lot more involved than just drilling a well," he said. "It's just not good for beaches."
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