Sunday, 30 January 2011

Current may carry Florida's oil spill fate

Oceanographers tracking the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico fear a powerful loop current will propel the mess across the Keys into South Florida.

Winds expected to shift and ease in the next few days could buy some time for weather-beaten crews battling to bottle up and burn off a massive slick of rust-colored crude before it fouls fragile marshes and sugary beaches across four Gulf Coast states.
But that brief reprieve could soon send a nasty ripple effect toward South Florida -- pushing outlying plumes of polluted surface water and patches of tar balls into the Gulf of Mexico's powerful loop current. That would propel the mess across the mangrove islands, seagrass beds and coral reefs of the Florida Keys, then up toward Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and beyond.
Oceanographers tracking the BP oil slick -- still expanding from an uncapped well belching an estimated 210,000 gallons a day -- said Monday that questions about the loop's impact have increasingly turned from if to when.
Satellite images suggest the loop, which moves seasonally, is creeping north, spinning off small whirls of current that University of Miami oceanographer Nick Shay said may already have drawn in the slick's leading, and lightest, edge.
Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida, who updates daily tracking models, pinpoints the loop still about 30 miles south of the slick.
But, he stressed, ``The immediacy of the collision of these two features is real. Will it happen in a day, two days, three days, a week, two weeks? I don't know. I'm not willing to say that yet.''
For now, the focus of Florida's top political, environmental and emergency managers remains firmly on the Gulf Coast.
Gov. Charlie Crist Monday extended his state of emergency order to 13 more counties, bringing the total to 19, as the spreading oil slick threatened Florida's coast.
``It is an enormous mess,'' Crist said. ``It is unbelievable, the magnitude of this thing. Clearly every effort needs to be put on plugging the hole up and stopping the bleeding.''
A state of emergency exists for the counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Manatee, Sarasota, Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie, Levy, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough.
With the slick and tar balls just 50 miles offshore in Florida, the state's top environmental official warned residents to brace for impacts to beaches and fisheries -- from oyster beds in the Panhandle to, at least potentially, the shallow reefs of the Florida Keys.
Michael Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, echoed concerns raised by scientists and fishing captains that the uncapped gusher could pump pollution up both coasts.
``The magnitude of this spill is daunting,'' he said. ``We still have an ongoing release of some 5,000 barrels of oil occurring just 50 miles off Louisiana. It's not like `We had a spill. We're cleaning it up and it'll be over.' ''
BP already has workers processing claims in Florida, according to Lucia Bustamante, the oil company's external-affairs director.
``There is a claims process that is very clear and it has been posted publicly,'' she said at an emergency meeting in Panama City. ``What I can tell you is to keep proper documentation of everything. You are going to need it.''
Attorneys general from the five Gulf Coast states are asking President Barack Obama to take legal steps necessary to lay blame for the massive Gulf oil leak.
Chris Bence, a spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Troy King, said a letter was prepared asking the president to clear the way for possible court action by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and his peers from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.