Friday, June 4, 2010

Oil disaster management plan to be presented

An oil soaked bird struggles against the side of the HOS Iron Horse supply vessel at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

THE National Oil Spill Committee is set to present its disaster management plan today as it was revealed that "favourable winds are the only thing preventing the Gulf of Mexico spill from reaching the Bahamas.

As the committee prepares to confront the world's worst offshore oil disaster, weather predictions suggest the current prevailing wind direction will protect the Bahamas until Tuesday, however a change in wind pattern is expected to move the oil towards the western Bahamas.

A detailed national strategy devised with two International Maritime Organisation (IMO) experts will be presented to committee chairman, Captain Patrick O'Neil and National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) director Captain Stephen Russell today and passed on to Environment Minister Earl Deveaux.

The multi-agency committee will also meet with the IMO and the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today as Florida braced for an oil sheen containing thousands of tar balls, heavy globs of decayed oil, to reach the white sand beaches of Pensacola on the west coast.

Oil has been rushing into the Gulf of Mexico for more than a month, but it’s had no impact on oil prices. (

However, southern winds predicted over the next five days will keep surface oil in the Gulf and west of Florida, Department of Meteorology chief climatological officer Michael Stubbs said.

"The winds are providing a protective barrier in the meantime," he told The Tribune.

"But the news now indicates the oil has entered the loop current, which feeds directly into the Gulf Stream and that moves towards our western shores.

"Ultimately, that is our concern, that it could end up in the Gulf Stream.

"However right now there is no need to panic, at least until Tuesday next week."

If the wind changes direction and spreads to the Florida Keys it will take about a week to then reach the Bahamas, National Oil Spill Committee spokesman Eric Carey said.

"We feel confident that the weather patterns are still in our favour," he said.

"Most of the currents are pushing it on shore of the Gulf and keeping it away from the Bahamas.

"But if it gets into the Florida Keys it would be an indication that it would be here in a week or so, and whatever gets to Florida and the Keys, we will probably get the same type of material."

Oil slicks are not expected but tar balls could drift towards the western coastlines, Mr Carey said.

As it will not be possible to install a 600-mile long boom to protect the Bahamas' western shoreline, the national strategy will involve booming key areas and cleaning up affected rocky shores.

Mr Carey said: "If we can boom off beaches we will have to clean up other areas like rocky shores as much as we can."

Meanwhile scientists are collecting evidence of tar-free shorelines, and having completed field work in Cay Sal Bank, the westernmost point of the Bahamas 145km west of Andros, they will move on to Bimini and other western coastlines to document baseline samples from sediment and fish.

Leading marine ecologist Dr Ethan Freid and marine biologist Kathleen Sealy will start training of more than 20 volunteers from Andros, Exuma, Abaco and Grand Bahama at the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) base in Coral Harbour on Monday.

The volunteers will then return home and train others to help them collect samples from the islands.

Mr Carey said: "If in the future the Bahamas is going to claim to some international litigation process, that the Gulf oil disaster is responsible for effects we see on tourism, fisheries resources, blue holes or other water resources, then we will have to prove that these people were properly trained.

"And as this oil event continues in the Gulf we need to have very credible samples."

Samples will be kept in a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified laboratory so they may be presented as evidence in court if the government decides to seek compensation for the clean-up costs and destruction from the spill.

The United States Justice Department announced on Tuesday it has launched criminal and civil probes into the spill.

Attempts to plug the well with mud failed over the weekend and subsequent efforts to cut off the fractured pipe and seal it hit a snag when a saw became stuck in a thick pipe on the sea bed on Tuesday, prompting a sharp decline in BP's shares on the stock market.

It is now estimated the oil could remain uncapped for two months or more as BP is drilling two relief wells to permanently plug the leak, but they are not expected to be completed until August.

The impact of the spill could be worsened by the impact of a cyclone, storm or hurricane in the Gulf this season which could hamper efforts to plug the spill and spread the oil.

Deep waters surrounding Cay Sal Bank, Abaco and Bimini are among the most important fishing grounds in the Bahamas and the extensive creek system on the west coast of Andros is largely protected by a national park boundary which the Nature Conservancy is hoping to extend with funding donated by Disney through the release of the child-friendly documentary "Oceans."

BP estimates the disaster has so far cost the company approximately $990 million in clean-up costs since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20 killing 11 workers and collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico.

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