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Date of Issue: June 09, 2010

Locals wish for oil to stay away

Algae turning the water a murky brown in the shallow water off Anna Maria Island caused a scare.

So did the black jelly-like “sea pork” on the beach in Fort Myers.

Beachgoers feared the arrival of oil from a leaking British Petroleum-leased deepwater well off the coast of Louisiana.

“It’s breaking my heart, what’s out there in the Gulf of Mexico,” Bradenton resident Maria Gabler said of the oil gushing from the well. “But if it was here, oh my god.”

On June 3, Gabler spent the evening at Manatee Public Beach with her family.

“I love everything about the beach and I just feel like this is a disaster,” she said. “I feel like I did when the Challenger blew up.”

The trouble in the Gulf of Mexico began April 20, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP killed 11 workers. The rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf, where a well began leaking. It has been gushing oil since, at a rate of about 19,000 barrels a day.

The latest attempt to plug the leak was still being tested June 4. It involved placing a cap on the well, a temporary fix while relief wells are being drilled. But even with the cap, oil still poured into the Gulf.

Meanwhile, in Manatee County last week, officials involved in the local response met with businesspeople to discuss the precautions taken and the response planned in the event oil arrives in local waters and on local shores.

The meeting, held at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce office in Bradenton June 2, drew about 50 businesspeople, including some from Anna Maria Island. Attendees are in the charter fishing, accommodations, wedding planning, restaurant and retail businesses.

Speakers included:

• Barbara Kirkpatrick of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, who discussed the institute’s monitoring and research work in the Gulf.

• Elliott Falcione of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, who discussed the tourism industry’s “Florida is open” message.

• Laurie Feagans, chief of the Manatee County emergency management operations, who discussed what the county has done locally since the spill began more than a month ago.

• Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county natural resources department, who discussed protecting fragile coastal areas and the spill’s impact on wildlife.

Kirkpatrick said Mote, working with others in the scientific community, had deployed robots to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and search for subsurface oil.

The robots send data every three hours. If the robot detects something, a research vessel would be dispatched. “We get a water sample and ground-truth it,” Kirkpatrick said.

She said a fourth robot would be deployed to patrol north and south in the area.

“It would be a sort of sentry about 20 miles offshore,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said Mote’s beach condition reports also contain information about the spill.

That information, as of June 2, showed no oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Florida shores, but by June 4 globs of tar balls were washing ashore in the Panhandle.

Falcione, at the meeting, urged the business community to keep pushing the message that Manatee County white-sand beaches are clean and the resort communities are open for business.

He suggested that newspapers print that message “on the front page every day.”

“Perception is really vital to what we do,” said Falcione. “Tourism is the No. 1 industry in the state of Florida. We’ve got to protect it.… It’ll kill us if the tourists go away.”

To reach potential beach tourists, the state is airing commercials in Florida, as well as investing BP money in a nationwide marketing campaign.

“So far they are not saying they’re not coming,” said Falcione, who reported the local CVB had received reports of just 12 accommodations cancellations since the April 20 explosion. “So far so good on that.… We just need the constant messaging that the beaches are clean.”

But the county is preparing for if oil — in whatever form — comes this way, said Feagans and Hunsicker.

“We’re gearing up and getting ready,” said Feagans, who described regular meetings involving county officials, as well as others involved in U.S. Coast Guard unified command in St. Petersburg.

“We are coordinating,” Feagans said. “We are discussing it. We’re following the information left and right. But we certainly hope we don’t get impacted on our shores.”

Hunsicker focused on the contingency plan, on what happens if oil is seen off the coast of Manatee.

He said the plan is an update one created under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and tested in a response to an oil spill in Tampa Bay 17 years ago. In 1993, three vessles collided near the mouth of Tampa Bay, spilling 300,000 gallons of oil into the water.

The plan, said Hunsicker, “was tested and did work very well for all of us.” Still, the oil from the 1993 spill impacted the Pinellas coast for years.

The contingency plan was updated several weeks ago, one of the first regional steps in preparing for Deepwater Horizon oil, and it details how fragile ecosystems — Perico Bayou, Robinson Preserve, Longboat Pass, Palma Sola Bay, Leffis Key, Sister Keys, Snead Island, Terra Ceia Bay, Bishop Harbor and Emerson Point — will be protected.

Hunsicker said that generally booms would not be used to protect beach property.

“It’s much easier to clean oil that comes ashore on a sandy beach than it is to reach into the roots of a mangrove coastal community,” he said.

He directed those interested in volunteering to Volunteer Florida, which is at www.volunteerfloridadisaster.org.

And Hunsicker encouraged people to be stewards of the coast — to appreciate that sea turtles use Island beaches for nesting grounds and to stay away from nesting shorebirds.

“Walk and observe as you walk the beach,” he said.