By Antigone Barton
As the black cloud of oil from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform neared the loop current that brings the Gulf Stream up the Atlantic coast, town managers,
administrators and rescue officials here began meeting in mid-May to plan
responses to a range of scenarios the disaster could bring. All, according to
federal, state and county environmental officials, could threaten wildlife,
spoil beaches and contaminate waters the length of Palm Beach County.
The impact locally of the April 20 explosion of the BP drill site in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana remained unknown a week after the May 17 meeting. In the
meantime, marine patrols from South Palm Beach to Delray Beach — the area
designated Zone 3 by county emergency planners — are reporting and monitoring
areas in their jurisdictions where debris accumulates, where tar balls would
arrive. And in the time since the initial meeting, town officials have updated
maps and lists of resources to assist plans to address damage from the spill.
But, Town Manager Ken Schenck notes, “Nobody really knows what is going to happen.”
The unknowns are stymieing even plans to train volunteers, county officials said, with estimates of the amount of training needed to assist in different
scenarios ranging from four hours to 40.
More than a month after the explosion, as its catastrophic impact on nature and commerce in the Gulf area continues to worsen, residents of this coast are anxious
to help, but county officials are asking them to keep a watchful distance.
While residents may survey shorelines for changes, county officials are asking them to report any tar balls that may arrive on beaches here, but to keep their
hands off them.
“It’s just like any other evidence,” according to county Environmental Resources Management coordinator Dan Bates. Residents spotting tar balls should call the
county’s emergency operations center, Bates said. A team to gather and
“fingerprint” tar balls to track their origins will arrive within an hour,
treating the spot, he said, “pretty much as it would a crime scene.”
Expert efforts to track contamination on beaches have been critical, he added, to showing that tar balls found on Keys beaches in mid-May had come from another
It seems likely, he said, that ships have seized possible camouflage provided by the explosion as an opportunity to empty bilges at sea without being detected.
In the meantime, with currents at different depths running at varying speeds and direction, the path of the spill remained impossible to predict in the last
week of May, he said.
Ed Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, says the effects of deeper currents on the reef that divers have called the area’s “hidden treasure” could
“We have a concern about the plumes they’ve created by using dispersants,” he said, pointing out that while measures to disperse oil slicks may make them disappear
from the surface of the water, they won’t make them go away.
In the wake of a long-running and successful battle to end the practice of discharging partly treated sewage into the ocean, Tichenor said the current
condition of the reefs has recently been well-documented. With that
documentation, Tichenor has asked local divers familiar with the reef system to
be alert for unusual events there.
Tichenor agrees with a policy of watchful waiting, citing reports of anxious beachcombers scooping up apparent debris, which turned out to be birds’ nests,
as well as reports of tar balls in the Keys that prompted a frenzy of hotel
cancellations but proved unrelated to the spill.
“The best thing to do is nothing, unless there’s something to do,” Tichenor said. “Because people seem to have the capacity to do more harm than good, when they
don’t know what they’re doing.”