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After being fed up with BP’s oil-spill cleanup efforts of oil washed onto their shore, officials in Okaloosa County, in the Panhandle, decided to ignore the law and conduct their own cleanup.
They deployed their own boats and skimming devices to try to keep more oil off their shore.
If faced with a similar decision, what would Sarasota County’s decision be — wait for BP and the state and federal governments to respond or go it alone?
Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency chief, said the answer is both.
“By law, it’s a BP, Coast Guard and Department of Environmental Protection response,” he said. “It’s not a choice unless you’re willing to pay the cost.”
That cost, said McCrane, could end up being more than $6 million. The county would be able to file a reimbursement claim with BP, but there’s no guarantee that a check would arrive.
For that reason, McCrane said the county is following the law — for now.
If county officials are not pleased with the response from BP and the state and federal governments, the county is prepared to conduct a local oil-spill response.
The way McCrane will judge that response is geography. When oil is spotted 94 miles from Sarasota County’s shore, BP, the Coast Guard and the DEP will mobilize and move boats, oil booms and cleanup crews to the oil site to try to keep it from getting closer to the shore.
“If we don’t see appropriate action, we have the ability to respond,” McCrane said.
The county has contractors on standby that are experienced in oil cleanup.
In the city of Sarasota, one commissioner is suggesting the city respond on its own.
“I’m beginning to assume all else will fail,” said Commissioner Terry Turner. “I’d like the (City) Commission to recommend independent action.”
City management, though, was reluctant to do that for the same reason county management cited — money.
“I urge you to be calm and not react to every (citizen) e-mail,” City Manager Bob Bartolotta told city commissioners June 21. “A united approach is the only way to go.”
The city manager said Okaloosa County’s go-it-alone plan is going to cost it $5 million per month.
According to McCrane, the likelihood of an oil slick washing up on Siesta Key Beach is slim.
“We have the luxury of distance and time,” he said.
Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 260 miles away. That was about two months ago, and oil from the spill is now 150 miles from the county’s coastline.
Up to 40% of the oil in the water will evaporate within the first 24 to 48 hours. What’s left then begins to congeal. It breaks into sheets, then patties and, finally, tar balls.
It’s those tar balls that McCrane said could litter Sarasota County’s sand. But he said if that happens it could be weeks, months or even years.
The county has received several calls from residents who believe tar balls have hit the shore, but McCrane said they either turned out to be other kind of debris, sea creatures or naturally occurring tar balls that occasionally float ashore. None of them were from BP’s oil spill.
The way they can tell is because oil has specific characteristics — a kind of DNA — that allows scientists to determine the oil’s origin.
“If someone finds a tar ball, we ask that they not touch it,” said McCrane. “Leave it where it is, and call the county at 861-5000.”
The county will then barricade the area.
“It’s like a crime scene,” McCrane said.
The tar ball will be sent to a lab to determine if it came from Deepwater Horizon. If it did, then a damage claim can be filed against BP.
The county is not just relying on everyday residents to spot possible tar balls. It has developed a network of volunteers — from turtle watchers to lifeguards — to keep a lookout on the shoreline.
“We are ready to take whatever action is necessary,” said McCrane.
Although the closest oil to Sarasota is 150 miles offshore, last week Sarasota County began the process of filing a claim with BP.
According to Dave Bullock, deputy county administrator, the claim would ask for reimbursement for the time and money spent planning for a disaster response.
The county is also investigating whether any tourist money has been lost due to the anticipation of oil washing onto the county’s beaches.
Bullock said it’s too early to estimate how much money the county will request.
Because some potential visitors have been canceling reservations, Siesta Key businesses have come up with a marketing plan to keep the tourists coming.
Thirty-five businesses, from condo rentals to hotels to beach-equipment suppliers, are offering a money-back guarantee. If the beaches are closed due to oil before a vacation starts, visitors will get a full refund. And if the oil spoils the beach during a stay, tourists can receive money back on any unused portion of their visit.