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BP's Oily Mess has Made it to Florida, Manatee Beaches Remain Clean


MANATEE COUNTY -- While scientists started out optimistic about Florida's chances of seeing its beaches awash with tar balls, it became pretty certain last week that the panhandle of our state was going to see some of the same effects that have been plaguing beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

An oil spill devastated this Australian beach.

Reports of dime-sized tar balls washing up, just east of the Alabama state line, began late last week and by Saturday, clean up crews were busily trying to clean beaches in and around Pensacola, as oil continued to wash up on land.

According to NOAA projections, oil is expected to continue effecting a growing area of the panhandle through most of this week. NOAA sited continuing evidence that the oil has also been picked up in the Loop Current, which could transport significant volumes of oil toward the state's southern tip.

Whether the oil will reach our local shores, remains unclear. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said in a  White House press briefing that the million gallons of dispersants that have been used, has created hundreds of thousands of smaller patches of oil that now must be cleaned up.

BP was successful in placing a "top-hat" cap on the well after cutting a large section from the top. The device only helps to trap a portion of the oil, while relief wells, which aren't expected to be completed until August, remain the primary hope to completely halt the flow of oil into the water.

120 linear miles of shoreline have been affected by the spill, thus far. As the spill widens and efforts to contain it continue to underwhelm, chances of oil reaching our local shores obviously improve. With hurricane season now under way, a new potentially disastrous variable has been introduced. A major storm could move the waters much more aggressively. The Coast Guard had said that fortunate weather patterns were allowing for more time to prepare for the eventual spread into Florida, but as oil began reaching Florida beaches some six weeks after the initial explosion, both the Coast Guard and BP seemed less prepared than Floridians would have liked.

An oil soaked bird in Mississippi awaits clean-up.

BP has only four "skimmer" boats in Florida waters, but are said to be moving 20 more. Around 1,200 Florida boats have contracted with BP to assist in the clean up. Nearly 260,000 feet of boom has been positioned. BP had previously given the state $60 million toward ad campaigns advertising that beaches were unaffected. Now, Governor Crist has requested the company give $150 million more to assist with the clean up effort.  

In a state where nearly 1 in 19 residents are employed in tourism related industries, anxiety is quite high. While recreational fishing is still open throughout the state, gulf fishing closures begin just a few miles offshore in some parts of the panhandle and about 100 miles west of our local beaches, effecting commercial fishing zones.

A new ABC/Washington Post poll shows that eight in ten Americans are critical of BP's handling of the spill, while more than two to one support criminal charges. Americans rate the federal government's response even worse than Hurricane Katrina.

There is also concern that the dispersants used to break up the larger oil patches could continue to affect gulf water long after the oil spill is contained, possibly inducing red tide blooms that could further hamper coastal waters. Florida's economy was just beginning to show signs of turning around after being battered by a depressed housing market and deep economic recession, making the timing of this environmental disaster all the less fortuitous.

In the mean time, Manatee County has the opportunity to promote itself as one of the few oil-free beach destinations on the Gulf of Mexico. While our local beaches remain safe and clean, the community would be well advised to coordinate massive advertising campaigns to ensure that such a perception is maintained. With no way of knowing if we will be affected or for how long, any window of opportunity should be utilized. If and when the oil starts to spoil local beaches, we will surely be glad to have squeezed out as much possible tourist revenue beforehand.


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