CLEARWATER — Pinellas County has readied a battle plan of boats and a boom if the gulf oil spill starts showing up on its beaches.
From 72 hours out from the oil's arrival on the beaches, county officials and the Coast Guard expect to send volunteers to clear debris to make cleanup efforts easier. Once oil is spotted, boats would skim tar balls and, if needed, professionally trained crews would be sent to beaches to remove tar patties.
For environmentally sensitive areas, a boom would be deployed to redirect the oil globs away from wildlife, such as bird nesting sites.
"This timing … is about a six-day forewarning for us. The best science still indicates the threat to the west coast of Florida remains low," emergency management director Sally Bishop told the County Commission on Tuesday, promising that the county is well prepared.
Environmental staff members have collected water and soil samples to create a baseline of what conditions are like before oil. The group Keep Pinellas Beautiful has lined up 1,600 volunteers, and has an ultimate goal of 5,000, Bishop said.
But questions remain over logistics, the ability of BP and the federal government to respond, and compensation for lost tourism revenue. While commissioners said they were satisfied with county preparations, worries persist.
"I know that there is concern out there, not only on the board but in Pinellas County in general … that we ought to take a more aggressive approach," Commissioner John Morroni said.
The county is waiting to get computer access via the Coast Guard to the area's contingency plan and maps, Bishop said. She also couldn't say how many boats were available for any oil-skimming operation.
Meanwhile, buying a boom would take away materials from more needy areas — and a boom might not help as much in Pinellas because forecasts expect oil sheens to break up by the time they arrive here, said Bishop and environmental management director Will Davis.
Davis initially downplayed the effectiveness a sand berm similar to one in Bay County would have here. But County Administrator Bob LaSala said the county staff is still reviewing work in the Panhandle in case it could be used here.
County officials also fretted about a lack of marketing to tout Pinellas' still untouched beaches.
The county requested $2.5 million of the $25 million the state received from BP for marketing and advertising. But tourism chief D.T. Minich complained that Gov. Charlie Crist had yet to respond.
The state has allocated $11 million so far, largely focused on the Panhandle.
"Right now, there's $14 million up there collecting interest," Minich scoffed.
However, Commissioner Neil Brickfield said the county, which is maintaining a $94 million reserve fund and $12 million savings from budget cuts, ought to pony up the money in advance, suggesting the spill crisis is an emergency.
"Tourism is our No. 1 business," Brickfield said.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.