Loop current could sweep oil to Florida’s east coast

Gov. Charlie Crist toured the Gulf of Mexico oil spill again Tuesday while one federal official said the response effort had been given “the gift of time” with good weather.

A leaking well from an oil rig that exploded on April 21 continues to pour what had been estimated at about 200,000 gallons per day into Gulf waters. NOAA maps suggested the spill would be within 25 miles from the Florida coast on Tuesday.

Light winds had kept the oil offshore and away from Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, federal officials said. A BP official said forecasts did not show a landfall of the oil during the next three days.

“We have been given what I call a gift of time, a gift of time as it moves around and stays farther offshore,” U. S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the incident commander for the oil spill response.

BP is building a containment dome to capture leaking oil from the well 5,000 feet deep about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. But if that doesn’t work, it could take two to three months to drill another well to stop the leak.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole told Florida egislators that the ongoing gush of oil could get 20 times worse if efforts to repair the leaking well were too aggressive and failed.

A University of South Florida scientist said that keeping the spill offshore in the near term doesn’t mean it stays away from Florida.

Robert Weisburg, distinguished professor in USF’s College of Marine Sciences, said the powerful Gulf “loop current” is moving closer to the spill as the spill pushes offshore. He said once captured in the loop current, the oil could arrive in the Florida Keys within a week and then move toward up the east coast.

Sole told legislators in a conference telephone call that tar balls could show up for months on Florida’s east coast or eventually as floating mats of oil .

“Fortunately weather and current conditions don’t appear to have that as a significant probability but it is not an impossibility,” he said.

Crist on Monday expanded his disaster declaration to 13 Gulf coast counties in addition to five western Panhandle counties. Sole said now is a good time for those additional counties to begin planning.

“Operational activities are really not envisioned at this stage for the southerly counties along the peninsula,” Sole said. “But I want them to be prepared.”

Legislators quizzed Sole on the state’s oil spill response.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, questioned whether the state was taking over the cleanup or letting BP take the lead. Sole said the situation was that both were playing leading roles.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach, said he was concerned that standards for eventually closing offshore waters to fishing may be more severe than necessary.

Florida has to be careful not to overreact to the spill, Sole said.

“For those of us who have a significant reliant on tourism in our beach communities,” he said, “we don’t want to scare people from coming to Florida unnecessarily.”

(Story content provided by the Current, produced by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)