Exploratory oil drilling off Cuba renews oil-spill fear factor in the Keys
Fears are renewed as a search for oil begins near Cuba. But some think
chances of a spill hitting the Keys is low
KEY WEST -- In Cuba's North Basin, the Spanish company Repsol has begun
risky exploration for oil and natural gas on a semi-submersible rig, now
just 77 nautical miles from Key West and even closer to the ecologically
sensitive Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a month or so,
Repsol expects its drilling through 5,600 feet of seawater and about
14,000 feet of layered rock will reach the reservoir.
That's frightening for many who live and work along the island chain.
Here, the memory is still fresh of the psychological hysteria and
economic havoc caused two years ago by the explosion of Deepwater
Horizon — despite the reality: No oil from the 4.9-million-barrel spill
reached the Keys. For just the scare, British Petroleum has paid out
more than $200 million in claims filed by businesses and residents of
South Florida, the bulk of them in Monroe County.
"I had actual visions of oil covering Florida Bay and the mangroves and
all the fish being completely devastated," said Richard Stancyzk,
longtime owner of Bud N' Mary's Marina, where 45 fishing captains dock
their boats in Islamorada. "We were hurt financially, but I'd really
like to sue BP for pain and suffering. It actually made me sick and
That vision of oil-slicked beaches, coral reefs and marine habitat was
shared by many after some scientists and government officials predicted
strong currents would bring the toxic crude oil to the Keys, more than
450 miles from the site of the spill. The Today show aired a scary
graphic provided by the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric
Research that showed the oil traveling around Florida and all the way to
the North Atlantic Ocean.
Fear set in. Keys residents and business owners took hazardous-materials
classes, learned to clean oil off wildlife, picked up debris on beaches
and complained there was not enough protective boom. They learned about
the Loop Current and an eddy named Franklin. And they prayed.
The situation was made worse when national media broadcast the arrival
of tar balls in Key West, leading to the misperception that the spill
had reached the subtropical paradise. Visitors canceled weddings,
conferences, fishing trips and diving vacations.
Since then, many lessons have been learned from the devastating spill,
whose true environmental effects will not be known for years.
Science has advanced. Coordination of federal, state, local and private
agencies has improved. And communication of information will be a more
critical part of future responses.
"We joke about it now, but even if we have the greatest response in the
world, if we are not getting the word out accurately, it doesn't
matter," said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning and force
readiness for the U.S. Coast Guard's Seventh District, based in Miami.
The Coast Guard has incorporated all the lessons learned into a
comprehensive offshore response plan to deal with the new threat of a
major spill in waters controlled by Cuba.
"We're certainly more ready than a year ago," Slaughter said. "We're not
as ready as we'll be in six months and in a year. Planning for this will
Coast Guard Sector Key West also has spent the past two years updating
its more than 1,000-page area contingency plan, which now includes
responding to the potential near shore and landfall issues of a massive
spill coming from Cuba. Before Deepwater Horizon and the exploration of
oil offshore of Cuba, the worst-case scenario for the Keys' emergency
drill was an oil tanker grounding on a reef.
Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commander of Sector Key West, agreed with Slaughter
that communication is a huge part of the plan.
"Equally as challenging as anything we'll do on the water or on the
shorelines is trying to keep folks calm and let them know there is a
plan — a very detailed organization we will be following with a very
large group of responders," DeQuattro said. "If we don't communicate
that well, we'll run into a similar situation [to Deepwater Horizon],
where folks are confused and angry."
Despite the proximity of the Keys to the Cuban rig site, the statistical
probability of significant oil reaching Keys shorelines is low, even in
the event of a massive spill in Cuban waters, according to three
scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They say geography is in all of Florida's favor because of the powerful
Gulf Stream, which flows between northern Cuba and the Keys, several
miles from any land, before heading north.
"The currents are like a conveyor belt at the grocery store," said Doug
Helton, NOAA's operations coordinator for the office of response and
restoration. "Oil moves at 2 to 3 percent of the wind speed. It moves at
100 percent of the current speed. It would take a strong wind and a
persistent wind to move oil out of the current."
NOAA scientists recently completed new computer tracking models to
evaluate the threat. They chose 20 potential drilling sites off Cuba and
used 200 different spill scenarios based on six years of current
information of water and weather conditions, including hurricanes, said
Brad Benggio, a NOAA scientific support coordinator.
ONLY A DRILL
To create the scenario of oil reaching the shorelines of the lower or
middle Keys for the recent Coast Guard-led tabletop drill, conditions
included winds of 30 knots out of the southeast that continuously blew
for "days and days and days." That would mean the oil would take a week
or more to reach land.
"That would allow for a lot of natural weathering," said Jim Jeansonne,
a NOAA scientific support coordinator. "We won't have a lot of black oil
coming ashore or threatening the resources of the reefs. What we will
have are tar balls, which are of much less a threat, but not a zero threat."
Although the chance of oil slicks reaching the Keys or the east coast of
Florida was even more remote during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that
probability was not communicated well. Fears that the Keys were in for a
big mess prevailed. The bigger unknown of what damage oil and
dispersants to break it up would do if any of it did reach Keys
fisheries and habitat also was a big concern.
On the same day Sector Key West held its tabletop oil spill drill, two
lawyers from Miami were at the Harvey Government Center across town to
solicit clients for the BP settlement, approved last week.
"You are going to have a floodgate of attorneys here, I promise,"
attorney Gabrielle D'Alemberte told a handful of business owners in Key
Despite not having any oil arrive, the settlement includes all of the
Florida Keys. Miami-Dade and Broward counties are not part of the
The oil spill that began as a nightmare for the Keys will end up having
a silver lining, said Stancyzk, the marina owner.
"It rained oil up north but down here it ended up raining money," he
said. "BP threw money at everybody. There were some inequities, but it
was an economic boom."
Commercial fishermen, dive companies, vacation rental businesses and
even a locals' watering hole called the Brass Monkey sued BP and the
other companies involved with the spill.
With a public relations disaster on its hands, BP set up three claims
offices in the Keys and even paid law enforcement officers $40 an hour
to guard them.
To date, BP has paid out nearly $181 million to nearly 11,000 claimants
in the Keys, an average of about $16,450 per claim. One fishing captain
based at Bud N' Mary's marina received $150,000.
BP paid $21.5 million for 1,895 claims in Miami-Dade County and another
$15.7 million for 433 claims from Broward County.
DeQuattro, the Coast Guard commander, said the massive response to the
spill, called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, still is
vivid in his memory.
Deepwater Horizon also was a semi-submersible rig that was exploring in
deep waters for oil, similar to the $750 million rig now being used by
"That response employed 40 to 50,000 responders, over 200 aircraft,
thousands of vessels and technical specialists from around the country
if not the world," he said. "To say that we are perfectly prepared for
that today is not the case. … But we've come a long ways and are
progressing towards having a better plan."
The Coast Guard now routinely patrols by boat and air in the vicinity of
the Repsol oil rig, always keeping a lookout for any signs of oil
despite a good relationship with the Spanish company.
Said DeQuattro: "We do have a good feeling it's not leaking."