BROOKSVILLE — As the oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig drifts ever closer to Hernando County's environmentally fragile shoreline, county officials have been scrambling to develop a plan they had hoped would never be needed.
Cecilia Patella, emergency management director, shared details of that plan with county commissioners Tuesday, such as where booms might be placed to keep oil away from marshlands and pricey waterfront homes.
Patella said that in the past, only one area along the coast, at Weeki Wachee, had been identified for special protection. But after working with the Coast Guard, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and representatives of the oil company BP, county officials have now identified other areas: Aripeka, Hernando Beach, Jenkins Creek, Weeki Wachee, Mud River and Chassahowitzka.
While the DEP is focused on areas with sensitive environmental features — places where fish hatch, birds nest and manatees seek protection — Patella said the county also proposed stopping oil before it gets into the Hernando Beach canal system, where monetary damages could soar.
"BP,'' she said, "wants to minimize claims.''
Commissioner Dave Russell expressed concern about oil getting into the Hernando Beach Channel, where a long-awaited dredging project is stalled at the moment, and asked whether booms should be placed there.
Commissioners said other governments along the gulf were building sand berms to keep oil out. Chairman John Druzbick half jokingly suggested that when the dredging resumes, instead of dumping the dredged sand on the land, it should be used to block oil from coming up into Hernando Beach.
County Administrator David Hamilton noted that early on DEP officials warned counties of trying things on their own that might cause more harm. He added that, as far as the dredge project was concerned, DEP officials "are very, very aware of this issue.''
Commissioner Rose Rocco suggested that relief is needed for local commercial fishermen who pay hundreds of dollars for their saltwater licenses but who may not be able to fish much longer as the closed zone continues to expand. She asked whether a moratorium on license fees should be enacted.
Also on Tuesday, former county commissioner and state House candidate Diana Rowden issued a news release making the same suggestion.
"I have spent several weeks working with Hernando fishermen who are losing their family businesses because our elected officials in Tallahassee haven't gotten in front of this problem," Rowden said in the release.
In responding to Rocco's question, Patella said that fishermen who buy their licenses but are unable to fish should be able to file a claim against BP. She noted that the company has already paid out millions of dollars in claims, much of it for lost wages.
Patella also noted that regional plans will go into force when the so-called zone of uncertainty, where experts believe the seeping oil could be below the surface, gets within 94 miles of the coastal counties from Dixie to Collier. She showed maps of oil spread predictions that indicated that there was a light sheen on the water reported from aerial observations about 150 miles out.
Local volunteers offering to help clean up the toxic oil and wash any birds that might be oiled must be trained ahead of time, Patella said. The county plans to get names of volunteers through Volunteer Florida and by registering people through the local United Way.
On June 17, county workers also will conduct a local baseline sampling of water and soil along the coast so there is something to compare conditions today with conditions if the oil arrives on Hernando's coastline.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.