U.S. officials, game-planning for a potential oil spill off Cuba, are preparing to leave South Florida’s beaches exposed while shielding inlets and intracoastal waterways to protect the most vulnerable parts of the state’s coastline, William E. Gibson reports for the Tampa Bay Times.
Two years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Cuban-sponsored drilling less than 60 miles from Florida has raised new alarms. In response, the Coast Guard has devised an elaborate plan to contain the damage if an oil slick rushes north on the Gulf Stream, the powerful current that runs along the East Coast.
Officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties are not confident that their beaches, reefs and bays — and the tourism dollars they generate — can be fully protected.
“If we do have a large spill, I’m not sure we have the capability of intercepting all of it,” said Eric Myers, Broward County’s natural resources administrator. “It will go to the beaches. And quite honestly, I think that most of the plans assume that a lot of oil can be collected from the beaches, which is what they did in the upper Gulf Coast.”
U.S. officials are increasingly confident that Cuban authorities would allow Americans to enter Cuban waters to help contain a major spill at its source. They plan to skim oil from the ocean surface, contain it, burn it or disperse it with chemicals before it comes near land.
But if a slick heads for South Florida, the Coast Guard plan calls for a series of booms to block surface oil from entering inlets and intracoastal waterways, especially near Port Everglades, Hillsboro Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Jupiter. Officials would not try to screen off beaches, which are much harder to protect but easier to clean up.
“We’re telling people not to expect a cocoon around the coast of Florida, because it’s not practical. And with the fast currents we have here, booms all along the beaches really wouldn’t be that effective,” said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of readiness at the Coast Guard’s 7th district in South Florida.
“Our priority is going to be to protect the inlets,” he said. “The beaches are incredibly important to us, but inlets are what allow water to get into inland areas where the most sensitive environmental areas are.”
The Coast Guard plan focuses on protecting bays, mangrove forests and lagoons — rich spawning grounds, where oil would cause great damage and be very difficult to remove. Local officials generally support the plan but say they can only hope to minimize damage if a slick arrives.
“We’ve looked at their (Coast Guard) response capabilities, which honestly are somewhat limited,” Myers said. “The main thing they have the ability to do is to boom certain areas and try to deal with floating near-surface oil. Anything that’s down deeper than that, nobody seems to have a way to manage that much volume of water.
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