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Islanders prepare for oil spill ‘worse case scenario’

By Staff | May 5, 2010

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Mayor Kevin Ruane, left, holds a chart identifying key environmentally-sensitive areas of Sanibel as City Manager Judie Zimomra delivers an information update on the status of the Gulf oil spill, Also pictured is City Attorney Ken Cuyler.

For the past few years, islanders have ardently debated both the pros and cons of whether to allow offshore drilling for oil and gas to take place within the current federal limit of 10 miles off the United States’ coast.

Those who have argued in favor of allowing the exploratory drilling have cited several factors, including escalating gas prices and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, to encourage and advance the activity.

And those who have petitioned against offshore drilling, foremost noting the potential risks for environmental disasters, now need only point to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon incident.

In the days that have followed the massive oil spill, estimated to be leaking 5,000 barrels per day into Gulf waters, officials at the federal, state and local levels have sprung into action, coordinating plans to contain the ever-growing slick and making preparations to combat damage to environmentally-sensitive areas from Louisiana to Florida.

On Monday afternoon, Florida Governor Charlie Crist expanded the oil spill “State of Emergency” from the panhandle south to Sarasota County. And while that area doesn’t include Southwest Florida’s communities, leaders on Sanibel and Captiva remain in planning and preparation mode.

According to Mayor Kevin Ruane, he and City Manager Judie Zimomra participated in a conference call with the Governor on Monday.

“We are continuing to work with our partners, both federal and state, as well as local partners ‘Ding’ Darling, Lee County Emergency Operations Center, SCCF and CROW, planning and preparing for this event,” Ruane said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “Since our interaction with FEMA will be different than with a hurricane, we will need to document to pre-existing condition of our city, coordinate identifying our environmentally-sensitive areas and initially begin to assemble volunteers that may be utilized when the time is appropriate.”

Zimomra also explained that currently, Sanibel’s beaches are all open and in “pristine condition.” She went on to note:

More than 2,000 personnel are involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort, both on and offshore, with additional resources being mobilized as needed.

To date, the oil spill response teams have recovered more than one million gallons of an oil-water mix. Vessels are in place and continuing recovery operations.

Approximately 156,000 gallons of dispersant have been deployed and an additional 75,000 gallons are available.

Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom (barrier) has been assigned to contain the spill, and an additional 500,000 feet is available.

“The best thing we have so far is that we’ve been placed very high on the environmentally-sensitive map by the federal government,” Zimomra told the council. “We just have to make sure those funds come our way if it becomes necessary.”

“This disaster is going to play out, but hopefully it’s not going to be as bad as it could be,” said Vice Mayor Mick Denham. “When this is behind us, if that means days or weeks, as a council we must use our lobby to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Fellow councilman Peter Pappas added, “If we get oil on the beaches of Southwest Florida, we will be in significant trouble for a long period of time.”

Mike Mullins, chairman of the Captiva Erosion Prevention District (CEPD), sent out a memorandum last Thursday, detailing his organization’s continued stance opposing offshore oil drilling. In the memo, he noted the CEPD had suggested to local legislators to seek better alternatives for energy independence.

“The remains of the Deepwater Horizon are still leaking over 5,000 barrels of oil per day. A worse ecological catastrophe to the Gulf waters and the Louisiana coastal marshlands cannot be fathomed. Still, the damage to life, health, ecology and property cannot adequately be measured as these fires rage and the resulting spill remains uncontained,” wrote Mullins. “Prevailing winds may well bring the tragedy to our very noses here in Southwest Florida. After almost 25 years, the Exxon Valdez lawsuit only recently was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But, the ecological mess has yet to have been fully mitigated. One shudders to think how long the Gulf coast will be plagued with the residual effects of this massive oil spill rapidly approaching the scope of the Exxon Valdez in size. Not only will we mourn the loss of dozens of human lives, but the toll taken on aquatic and avian life will also be unbearable.”

In addition to local government response, several local non-profit agencies are monitoring the news closely, putting their own response plans in place.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) is currently taking names of

volunteers in case the oil spreads this way. Karen Nelson, the organization’s Communications Coordinator, said people are welcome to come to the agency and sign-up as a volunteer.

Perhaps the most devastating affect of loose oil reaching any Gulf Coast beaches would be to the beginning of the sea turtle nesting season.

Rae Ann Wessel, natural resource policy director for the SCCF, said all five species of sea turtles – Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback, Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley – have been mating. The nesting season began Saturday and continues until the end of October.

From Texas to Florida, thousands of turtles will begin laying their eggs on the beach.

“Sea turtles are nesting all over the Gulf Coast,” she said. “Thousands of sea turtles that are mating and preparing to nest, so this is absolutely the worst possible time.”

Dr. Jose Leal, executive director and curator for the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, said that he would work to recruit museum volunteers if called upon to help keep the oil slick at bay.

“We will be more than happy to join any local efforts,” Dr. Leal said.

PURRE (People United to Restore Our Rivers and Estuaries) is gathering information to help its members educate themselves, keep up-to-date on the latest oil spill news and prepare for the possibility that this region may be affected by this disaster. They have compiled a list of websites which offer up-to-the-minute details:

www.incidentnews.gov/incident/8220

www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com

www.dep.state.fl.us/deepwaterhorizon/default.htm

Lee County’s Emergency Management has begun monitoring the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, holding a planning meeting with federal, state and local agencies regarding protection of the shoreline and potential clean-up,

“We want to be proactive, and ensure that we have the necessary resources ready to respond, as needed,” said Operations Manager J. Stakenburg, in a recent statement. “Especially knowing the potential impact it could have on our local economy, environment, and even the health of our residents.”

U.S. Coast Guard officials from Fort Myers Beach said the spill isn’t expected to reach Southwest Florida’s shores.

“All I can say is that the current trajectory isn’t showing the oil spill is going to impact our beaches, however, if it isn’t contained or secured, and it goes on for quite a while, down the road there might be an impact to our beaches in Southwest Florida,” said Lt. Commander Mark Sawyer with the marine safety detachment division on Fort Myers Beach.

Whether local beaches experience any residual effect from the spill depends on a number of variables, such as weather and how long it takes for it to be contained.

“We are doing the best to reach out to our stake-holders to be prepared if and when oil should reach our shores,” Sawyer said.

President Barack Obama, who said in April that he wanted to lift a long-standing moratorium on off-shore drilling in the Altantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, said Friday no new leases to drill should be issued until all platforms have a new safeguard to prevent anything like the spill last week, reported the Associated Press.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, sent a letter to Obama on Thursday asking that further exploration be halted until an investigation determines why the rig exploded, killing 11, and leaked. Nelson also filed legislation to halt the Interior Department from expanding drilling, seismic testing or other exploratory operations.

He also wrote that the rate of the current leak would make the spill as large as the Exxon Valdez is one month.

“As I have argued for decades, drilling too close to the coast poses too great a threat to the economy and environment of Florida and other coastal states,” wrote Nelson.

(Bob Petcher, MacKenzie Cassidy and Ella Nayor contributed to this report)