Longboat Key residents Randall Clair and Weldon Frost have recently worked with Town Manager Bruce St. Denis and Public Works Director Juan Florensa to help them understand what to expect if oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were to come ashore on the Key.
“Utilizing our local resources on this island has been very helpful,” Florensa said.
Florensa says Clair has helped the town know what to expect in terms of potential cleanup reimbursements, and Frost has helped staff realize what kind of oil (tar balls, if any) to expect on the island’s shores.
Former Longboat Key commissioner and retired corporate lawyer Randall Clair knows all about the headaches involved with oil spills, how to clean them up and how to pay out the claims from affected parties.
Clair joined The American Oil Co., or Amoco (which later became a part of British Petroleum), in 1970, and was responsible for overseeing the legal responsibilities of one of the largest oil spills in history.
In March 1978, the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker split in two, after running aground off the coast of France and releasing its entire cargo of 1.6 million barrels of crude oil into the North Atlantic Ocean.
Clair spent more than 10 years handling lawsuits and counter lawsuits from various governments, working eventually to settle the case for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Clair distinctly remembers meeting a British ship captain known for his expertise with oil spills.
“He told us to go to church often and pray often,” Clair said.
Clair said that in many instances, it’s easier to clean any oil if you let it come ashore.
“The problem that arises in all oil spills is people’s expectations are heightened to the extent that we can and must do something,” Clair said. “And when those people help clean it up on the beach and then more oil comes back in the next high tide, peoples’ expectations are dashed.”
Clair says, however, that the goal is to trap the oil before it comes to shore by skimmers.
Clair calls the state, federal and local responses to an oil spill “a game of catch-up.”
“Hopefully, there is teamwork, but there are going to be conflicts between the different parties,” Clair said. “And it’s up to municipalities to decide if they want to bring in their own contractors instead of relying solely on other efforts.”
Clair said it’s not unreasonable for communities to bring in contractors, because other plans won’t protect natural resources that local communities know better.
“Ultimately, people will demand you do more and will rely on their local government units to meet their demands,” said Clair, noting that other efforts may work, but may not get reimbursed by BP.
“In theory, you will get reimbursed,” Clair said. “But there is always a risk of going over and beyond because local people want more protection.”
Longboat Key resident and retired geological engineer Weldon Frost doesn’t believe Longboaters have anything to worry about in the long run.
Frost, a 37-year Mobil Oil employee, oversaw about 60 offshore drills around the world with no incidents.
Frost believes that in the event of a major storm, such as a hurricane, the only form of oil residents will likely see on the beaches are wax balls, or tar balls.
Mother Nature, Frost says, breaks down most of the oil spill.
The lighter molecules in the oil dissolve into the air, gasoline molecules evaporate and bacteria eats away at the heavier molecules in the oil.
“By the time the lighter oil sheen gets here, it would already be evaporated,” Frost said. “And the tar balls or wax balls can easily be picked up with a front-end loader.”
Frost also notes that dispersants are available that eat the heavier molecules.
“The important thing for us to remember is even if oil were to come ashore, it can be handled and it isn’t going to last because the bacteria eats it up,” Frost said.
Frost urges residents not to be too concerned about tar balls washing up on shore.
“More than 2,000 barrels of oil a day seep out of the Gulf’s bottom and wash up on Texas beaches,” Frost said. “There is nothing you can do about it. But the good news is our tar balls will eventually go away.”
Frost doesn’t like to guess when the tar balls might come, but said he thinks the town should organize 300 to 400 volunteers to help clean up.
“But if I had to guess, I think they are a couple of months away,” said Frost.
He is confident that an incident like the oil-rig explosion that occurred in April will never happen again.
“Everyone in the industry knows what BP did wrong,” said Frost.
Contact Kurt Schultheis at firstname.lastname@example.org.