TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida's top environmental official said Tuesday that there is a good chance the state will dodge the worst of the Gulf oil spill and might only suffer minor damage. Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole told state legislators on a conference call that "Mother Nature has been kind to us" as the winds and Gulf currents have kept the oil away from the state so far.
That might keep damage to a minimum, although oil sheen and tar balls could be washing ashore for months, he said. He warned, however, that the weather could change and that the state needs to be prepared. The worst-case scenario is for the oil to get into the Loop Current, which speeds past Florida's Gulf coast and into Florida Bay and the Keys. There, it meets up with the Gulf Stream, which could then carry oil up the state's Atlantic coast.
"If the plume got completely in the Loop Current and we got strong winds from the north," Sole said, "you would see more than just tar balls."
But if Sole's optimistic scenario holds up, that would be good news for the state's birds, fish and other coastal wildlife. It would also cheer up hoteliers, restaurateurs and fishermen from Pensacola to Key West, who have been worried that their livelihoods would be damaged or destroyed if the oil slick hit the state hard.
The spill began April 20 when a drilling rig operated by oil giant BP PLC exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers. It has been spewing up to 200,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf, and the spill now covers thousands of square miles.
Later Tuesday in Fort Walton Beach, Sole tried to calm fears that BP wasn't doing enough to stop the oil's spread, to prepare for the damage it could bring to Florida or to support businesses already suffering from the Panhandle's now tainted reputation. Sole said he's pushing BP to release its plans for oil-containing booms in the Gulf and for the company's beach recovery plans. He asked himself, rhetorically, if BP will send people to the beach at first light each day to make sure the sand is the sugary white that tourists want to see. "We will punch BP to be responsible for picking up every darn tar ball on this beach," Sole said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist traveled to Pensacola on Tuesday to meet with workers at the Escambia County emergency operations center. He said the state might sue BP PLC to help recover its costs. The company announced Tuesday that it was giving the state an initial $25 million to cover expenses it has incurred preparing for the oil's arrival. Crist has declared a state of emergency in 19 counties from Escambia in the Panhandle to Sarasota in southwest Florida. The Coast Guard said Tuesday said it would be setting up a Florida command post this week for its oil spill efforts, most likely in St. Petersburg. The federal government has authorized the state to mobilize 2,500 National Guardsmen to help.
"The last thing we want to be criticized for is not doing enough," Crist said. "I always prefer to be criticized for doing too much."
Researchers and environmentalists said Tuesday they remain concerned the slick could hit the Loop Current and reach Florida Bay and the Everglades, harming plants, fish and other wildlife. The oil, if it arrives, could remain in Florida Bay for years, smothering mangrove trees, an important feeding area for wading birds and game fish It could also damage coral reefs and sea grass. Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said the Everglades have already been through a trying year, with an extended drought and then a record cold season that killed many animals. "It really raises the question of how many punches the Everglades can take," Fordham said.