Offshore oil drilling near Cuba renews spill concerns in Florida Keys

The Miami HeraldApril 23, 2012 

In Cuba’s North Basin, the Spanish company Repsol has begun risky exploration for oil and natural gas on a semi-submersible rig, now just 77 nautical miles from Key West and even closer to the ecologically sensitive Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a month or so, Repsol expects its drilling through 5,600 feet of seawater and about 14,000 feet of layered rock will reach the reservoir.

That’s frightening for many who live and work along the island chain.

Here, the memory is still fresh of the psychological hysteria and economic havoc caused two years ago by the explosion of Deepwater Horizon — despite the reality: No oil from the 4.9-million-barrel spill reached the Keys. For just the scare, British Petroleum has paid out more than $200 million in claims filed by businesses and residents of South Florida, the bulk of them in Monroe County.

“I had actual visions of oil covering Florida Bay and the mangroves and all the fish being completely devastated,” said Richard Stancyzk, longtime owner of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, where 45 fishing captains dock their boats in Islamorada. “We were hurt financially, but I’d really like to sue BP for pain and suffering. It actually made me sick and nauseous.”

That vision of oil-slicked beaches, coral reefs and marine habitat was shared by many after some scientists and government officials predicted strong currents would bring the toxic crude oil to the Keys, more than 450 miles from the site of the spill. The Today show aired a scary graphic provided by the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research that showed the oil traveling around Florida and all the way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

Fear set in. Keys residents and business owners took hazardous-materials classes, learned to clean oil off wildlife, picked up debris on beaches and complained there was not enough protective boom. They learned about the Loop Current and an eddy named Franklin. And they prayed.

The situation was made worse when national media broadcast the arrival of tar balls in Key West, leading to the misperception that the spill had reached the subtropical paradise. Visitors canceled weddings, conferences, fishing trips and diving vacations.

LESSONS LEARNED

Since then, many lessons have been learned from the devastating spill, whose true environmental effects will not be known for years.

Science has advanced. Coordination of federal, state, local and private agencies has improved. And communication of information will be a more critical part of future responses.

“We joke about it now, but even if we have the greatest response in the world, if we are not getting the word out accurately, it doesn’t matter,” said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning and force readiness for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Seventh District, based in Miami.

The Coast Guard has incorporated all the lessons learned into a comprehensive offshore response plan to deal with the new threat of a major spill in waters controlled by Cuba.

“We’re certainly more ready than a year ago,” Slaughter said. “We’re not as ready as we’ll be in six months and in a year. Planning for this will never end.”

Coast Guard Sector Key West also has spent the past two years updating its more than 1,000-page area contingency plan, which now includes responding to the potential near shore and landfall issues of a massive spill coming from Cuba. Before Deepwater Horizon and the exploration of oil offshore of Cuba, the worst-case scenario for the Keys’ emergency drill was an oil tanker grounding on a reef.

KEEPING CALM

Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commander of Sector Key West, agreed with Slaughter that communication is a huge part of the plan.

“Equally as challenging as anything we’ll do on the water or on the shorelines is trying to keep folks calm and let them know there is a plan — a very detailed organization we will be following with a very large group of responders,” DeQuattro said. “If we don’t communicate that well, we’ll run into a similar situation [to Deepwater Horizon], where folks are confused and angry.”

Despite the proximity of the Keys to the Cuban rig site, the statistical probability of significant oil reaching Keys shorelines is low, even in the event of a massive spill in Cuban waters, according to three scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

They say geography is in all of Florida’s favor because of the powerful Gulf Stream, which flows between northern Cuba and the Keys, several miles from any land, before heading north.

“The currents are like a conveyor belt at the grocery store,” said Doug Helton, NOAA’s operations coordinator for the office of response and restoration. “Oil moves at 2 to 3 percent of the wind speed. It moves at 100 percent of the current speed. It would take a strong wind and a persistent wind to move oil out of the current.”

NOAA scientists recently completed new computer tracking models to evaluate the threat. They chose 20 potential drilling sites off Cuba and used 200 different spill scenarios based on six years of current information of water and weather conditions, including hurricanes, said Brad Benggio, a NOAA scientific support coordinator.

ONLY A DRILL

To create the scenario of oil reaching the shorelines of the lower or middle Keys for the recent Coast Guard-led tabletop drill, conditions included winds of 30 knots out of the southeast that continuously blew for “days and days and days.” That would mean the oil would take a week or more to reach land.

“That would allow for a lot of natural weathering,” said Jim Jeansonne, a NOAA scientific support coordinator. “We won’t have a lot of black oil coming ashore or threatening the resources of the reefs. What we will have are tar balls, which are of much less a threat, but not a zero threat.”

Although the chance of oil slicks reaching the Keys or the east coast of Florida was even more remote during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that probability was not communicated well. Fears that the Keys were in for a big mess prevailed. The bigger unknown of what damage oil and dispersants to break it up would do if any of it did reach Keys fisheries and habitat also was a big concern.

THE SETTLEMENTS

On the same day Sector Key West held its tabletop oil spill drill, two lawyers from Miami were at the Harvey Government Center across town to solicit clients for the BP settlement, approved last week.

“You are going to have a floodgate of attorneys here, I promise,” attorney Gabrielle D’Alemberte told a handful of business owners in Key West.

Despite not having any oil arrive, the settlement includes all of the Florida Keys. Miami-Dade and Broward counties are not part of the settlement.

The oil spill that began as a nightmare for the Keys will end up having a silver lining, said Stancyzk, the marina owner.

“It rained oil up north but down here it ended up raining money,” he said. “BP threw money at everybody. There were some inequities, but it was an economic boom.”

Commercial fishermen, dive companies, vacation rental businesses and even a locals’ watering hole called the Brass Monkey sued BP and the other companies involved with the spill.

With a public relations disaster on its hands, BP set up three claims offices in the Keys and even paid law enforcement officers $40 an hour to guard them.

To date, BP has paid out nearly $181 million to nearly 11,000 claimants in the Keys, an average of about $16,450 per claim. One fishing captain based at Bud N’ Mary’s marina received $150,000.

BP paid $21.5 million for 1,895 claims in Miami-Dade County and another $15.7 million for 433 claims from Broward County.

DeQuattro, the Coast Guard commander, said the massive response to the spill, called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, still is vivid in his memory.

Deepwater Horizon also was a semi-submersible rig that was exploring in deep waters for oil, similar to the $750 million rig now being used by Repsol.

“That response employed 40 to 50,000 responders, over 200 aircraft, thousands of vessels and technical specialists from around the country if not the world,” he said. “To say that we are perfectly prepared for that today is not the case. … But we’ve come a long ways and are progressing towards having a better plan.”

The Coast Guard now routinely patrols by boat and air in the vicinity of the Repsol oil rig, always keeping a lookout for any signs of oil despite a good relationship with the Spanish company.

Said DeQuattro: “We do have a good feeling it’s not leaking.”

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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