VIDEO: Oil spill threat to Southwest Florida low but Coast Guard stresses vigilance

U.S. Coast Guard oil spill response

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Video from NBC-2

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The man leading the U.S. Coast Guard oil spill response on Florida’s west coast said Thursday that the threat to Southwest Florida is low but he’s prepared.

“We are being vigilant, we’re being very vigilant,” said Capt. Timothy Close, commander of Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg.

Close spoke and answered questions for more than an hour at a meeting in Fort Myers of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, a six-county agency whose focus includes emergency preparedness.

Elected officials who make up the bulk of the 34-member council said they found Close’s remarks reassuring.

“I think we all walked away with a better feeling,” said the council’s Vice Chairman Chuck Kiester, a Marco Island city councilman.

Some, though, said they still questioned BP’s strategy to try to cap the gushing wellhead and worried about long-term environmental effects of a sub-surface disaster.

Tens of millions of gallons of oil have spewed from a wellhead a mile below the Gulf surface since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank two months ago.

Winds and currents have pushed the oil ashore from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle and dragged part of the spill southward offshore of Southwest Florida and toward the Florida Keys.

Close said a research vessel west of Tampa Bay, two ships west of Key West and a C-130 aircraft flying from the St. Petersburg Naval Air Station are keeping daily track of the spill off Florida’s west coast.

They have spotted patches of light oil sheen in a clockwise eddy that has detached from the Loop Current west of the coast between Tampa and Naples, he said.

When 72-hour projections of the spill bring it within 94 miles of the coast — into a so-called trigger zone — Close sits down with spill responders to discuss what response is needed, if any.

That has happened two or three times, Close said, but the spill has always retreated without triggering any response mobilization.

“We’ll have a pretty substantial period of time to start jumping on it,” Close said. “We’re watching every single day.”

Any oil that makes it to Southwest Florida would be different than the oil washing up along coasts in the northern Gulf, Close said.

“The worst case is not really that bad for us (compared to what is happening in the northern Gulf),” Close said.

By the time oil would reach Southwest Florida, it would be weathered, probably leaving only tar balls or tar patties to foul the coast, Close said.

That means, rather than using skimmers to keep the oil at bay, boats would be equipped with mechanisms that could scoop up clumps of tar from the water, Close said.

He said the Coast Guard has confirmed one tar ball a man said he had collected from St. Petersburg Beach, but tests determined it was not associated with the Deepwater Horizon gusher.

Close said he has met with local emergency managers to fine-tune Coast Guard response plans.

The plans call for booms to be laid across passes and inlets to keep oil out of places where it would be hardest to clean up, such as mangroves.

“It’s not about protecting the beaches,” Close said.

He said he has cautioned local emergency managers against taking response plans into their own hands. That would risk counties and cities not getting BP to reimburse their expenses, he said.

“We’ve asked everyone to try to be real patient when it comes to sending out volunteers en masse,” Close said.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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