With little new information than was disseminated more than two weeks ago when reports of tarballs at Ft. Zachary Taylor and along the Lower Keys began rolling in, Commander Tom Walsh from U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West appeared Tuesday night with BP Community Liaison Andrew Van Chau at Marathon’s regularly scheduled council meeting.
Much to the frustration of the council and the audience in attendance, neither representative could give a straight answer to the repeated question of “Do you have a plan?”.
“We keep hearing ‘We have a plan, we have a plan, we have a plan’,” Mayor Ginger Snead implored. “Our residents want to know how they can help. We’re not looking for a pat on the head like we’re three years old. We don’t want to be reactive, but proactive.” Walsh told the council that though the Coast Guard is responding to more than quadruple the average reports of tarballs, to date, none of them are tied to the Deepwater Horizon spill. He suggested sources of the tarballs could range from container ship seepage to vessel cleaning discharge and even sunken vessels offshore.
“All actions are done in accordance with the Area Contingency Plan,” Walsh said of the Coast Guard’s response efforts, adding that in partnership with NOAA, the environmental arm of the unit will continue to monitor the current and developing situation. He went on the brief the council on the Vessel Sentry program that currently has two boats positioned due west of the Dry Tortugas looking for signs of oil heading for the Keys.
“We’re relying on theories that oil will only come here in the form of tarballs,” Vice Mayor Mike Cinque grilled. “Do you have boom in place? Are you finding local assets?”
Van Chau said that in addition to satellite monitoring, the Vessel Sentry puts “boats and crews on the water with eyeballs looking for sheens and tarballs coming this way” and that program would function as an early warning system.
“The response will be based on what we see coming this way,” he offered. Councilman Pete Worthington, also a commercial fisherman, said the Gulfstream surrounding the Keys is not like the Gulf waters to the north.
“The Dry Tortugas are 60 miles out, and at three knots an hour, you’re talking about 20 hours away from Key West once you detect it with your sentries,” Worthington suggested. “My concern is it sounds like the time the sentry sends the red flag up…are we gonna be prepared?
Coral Marine Construction owner George Steinmetz, with whom Councilman Dick Ramay had already sought some professional consultation on response matters, continued to put the pair on the hot seat.
“If you know three days from now that there are five square miles of tarballs heading for Marathon, what’s you plan?” Steinmetz asked firmly.
Walsh answered, much to the council’s dissatisfaction, “It depends upon where the tarballs are likely to impact in Marathon and the type of shoreline. The unfortunate reality of tarballs is that booming is not a great strategy for tarballs. They can go beneath the surface of the water. Boom is not a great oil prevention strategy.”
“So we can’t keep them off our shore is what you’re saying? We have no plan to keep them off our shores, is that what you’re saying?” Snead continued. She reiterated to Walsh that tarballs left floating in the mangroves would undoubtedly affect the local fishery and in turn tourism at the foundation of the community’s economy.
“This is all pretty hard to swallow in light of the fact we’ve been told there is a plan,” she rebuked. To the slight surprise of his fellow council people, Ramsay unfolded his plans for a community-wide meeting where residents can seek answers to the tough questions looming in everyone’s minds.
“Do you have 30 miles of boom material or not? Are you going to use our local fishing interest? I’m sick and tired of this nonsense! I don’t care about snakes or balls and all this smoke and mirrors,” he demanded.
The council agreed to a special call meeting Monday, June 14 at 5:30 at Marathon High School auditorium.