Northeastern Towns Prepare For Potential Oil Spill Impact

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Gulf Oil Spill Loop Current

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Communities up and down the East Coast are preparing for the “what if?”

As crude oil spreads damage across Gulf coast states, discussions as far away as 1,500 miles are beginning about what municipalities should do if gobs of goo start appearing on their beaches.

Folks in the Hamptons, where two local beaches were rated among the Top 5 in the country, gathered Thursday to discuss contingencies for their communities. Representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, state Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as local town officials, and others participated.

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“There could be serious damages, not only to the tourism, which we live by, and to our beaches, but also to our commercial fishermen,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor William Wilkinson.

“Not that I have any remedies. It’s like a smoke detector you put up in your house. You hope it never goes off, but just in case it does, are we prepared to handle some of the issues?”

In New Jersey, a working group of environmental protection officials and coastal scientists held a May 25 conference call to discuss the oil spill, mindful of the effects it could have locally. No physical preparations were made.

“Right now, we are very optimistic the oil will not reach New Jersey and will not affect fishing nor the summer beach season,” said Bob Martin, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner.

Scientists have told New Jersey officials that the oil likely will not reach its beaches, Martin said.

The oil could move east toward Florida and the Gulf Stream, which would eventually pull it north toward the Carolinas. That would move the flow toward Cape Hatteras, N.C., and then a likely flow east into the Atlantic, away from the northern half of the East Coast and toward Europe.

But storms and other factors could cause portions of an oil plume to break off from the main body and head toward New Jersey, he cautioned.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the most current trajectory shows no oil in the Loop current.

“We will continue to monitor it and take actions as necessary,” he said.

Asked whether BP officials will be helping communities along the Atlantic coast that are preparing for the possibility of oil washing up there, Proegler said, “Our current focus is on the Gulf.”

He didn’t have any immediate information on BP officials planning to attend the community meetings in the Northeast, but he said he would look into it.

Dr. Anne McElroy, professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, agrees that the chances of the oil reaching Long Island is remote.

“Chances of any serious impact are vanishingly small,” McElroy said in a telephone interview.

Her Stony Brook colleague, Lawrence Swanson, said: “The likelihood of us being exposed to any oil is very small. In fact, Scotland probably has a greater chance of impact than we do.”

In Washington, 22 senators representing East Coast states called for a coordinated response plan should the oil find its way to Atlantic beaches.

“If there is any real risk to these communities from a spill that right now remains thousands of miles away, we need to know as soon as possible,” the senators wrote in a letter to Coast Guard Commandant Thad W. Allen, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. “Our state agencies that will partner with federal agencies to protect our shores need to be fully prepared with the information and equipment needed to combat the worst case scenario.”

At the East Hampton meeting, Coast Guard and state environmental officials said contingency plans have long been established to deal with oil spills of any magnitude. Coast Guard Lt. David Barnes said strategies such as where to place booms to collect oil already have been discussed. He said the plans also discuss where to set up staging areas for animal rescue and other emergency responders.

He noted those plans were used in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island in 1996.

“Any time we get a spill we look at what sensitive areas are going to be affected,” Barnes said. In the TWA crash, the Coast Guard was responsible for cleaning the jet fuel that leaked into the ocean after the jetliner broke apart.

East Hampton resident Debbie Klughers said despite predictions that oil hitting Long Island may be unlikely, she is concerned about the effects on wildlife.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I think it’s really forward looking of East Hampton to be one of the first towns to put something like this together.”

Massachusetts officials are closely watching forecasts on the Gulf oil spill and participating in regular discussions with other states and the federal government, most recently on Tuesday, said Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Though any effect on New England is considered unlikely, the state does have an emergency response plan.

“We recognize that it is a dynamic situation, depending on the way the currents move, and we continue to closely monitor it,” she said Thursday.

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