County begins training for oil spill clean up

By Antigone Barton

A break in the current that could carry oil from BP’s exploded Deepwater Horizon site from the Gulf of Mexico to these shores has added uncertainty to local response preparations.

But a plan for training that will enable local government employees and volunteers to deal with whatever the disaster may bring is set for July.

The training is part of a stance that Palm Beach County oil disaster task force members say will remain firm. If oil arrives here, they will not depend on BP to protect local beaches.

“If BP is unable to clean up the beach, we will do it,” Assistant County Administrator and Public Safety Director Vince Bonvento said. “Whatever it takes to protect our estuaries and our communities and our beaches, we will do.”

That is the backbone of a draft plan that task force members discussed at a June 10 meeting and sent to disaster response coordinators that include state, federal
and BP officials.

By federal law, BP bears responsibility for addressing impacts of the disaster.

“That makes a few people uncomfortable,” Dan Bates, who directs beach enhancement and restoration efforts for the County Environmental Resource Management Department.

While Bates said plans call for “BP showing up and cleaning up in a timely and efficient manner,” designated county and municipal employees will receive eight hours of training through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in early July to assess damage from oil. In addition, a half-day training for those who may participate in
cleanup efforts is in the works, Bates said.

Training is critical because the oil from the spill — whether it turns up in the form of tar balls, or mats embedded in seaweed — is considered hazardous waste and must
be disposed of appropriately.

For that reason, Gary Solomon, founder and coordinator of Sand Sifters, a volunteer group that cleans beaches from the Boynton Inlet to Gulf Stream, is directing volunteers interested in helping oil cleanup efforts to sign up on the county’s website at:

“They will need training we don’t provide,” he said.

Solomon, who attended the June meeting, asked county officials to post signs directing beach goers not to touch or try to dispose of oil they find on the beach on their own. The county has ordered signs, but will not install them until more is known on the path of the oil.

With the eddy that broke off from the loop current in mid-June still swirling in the Gulf of Mexico at the month’s end, that remains unpredictable, according to county officials.

In the meantime, Solomon says, while Sand Sifters will be available to help when called, he is not soliciting volunteers now.

“I don’t want to be like the boy who cried wolf,” Solomon said.

For the volunteers who gather cigarette butts and bits of plastic from local beaches on a weekly basis, the wait to see the impact of the oil disaster is grueling.

“Our goal is to make sure the beaches are healthy and wildlife is protected,” he said. “So this whole thing is one big blow to the bottom of our hearts.”

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