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ADCNR Prepares for Impact of Oil Spill

While Mother Nature decides where the oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster eventually ends up, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is coordinating resources to deal with the potential impact along the Alabama coastline with its numerous environmentally sensitive estuaries and bays.

Because of the oil slick that is estimated to be the size of Puerto Rico, NOAA Fisheries has closed a portion (map) of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. Governor Bob Riley has declared a state of emergency and directed all state agencies to work with federal agencies to try to minimize the impact of the unprecedented oil spill. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and ADCNR’s Marine Resources Division are at the forefront of the effort.

The impact it will have on Alabama is still unknown and recent weather patterns have made it difficult to predict.

“Due to the storms earlier this week and the wind and rain it has kind of broken the plume of oil coming this way,” said Vernon Minton, director of the Marine Resources Division. “It emulsified it somewhat. They’re saying it’s inching closer to Alabama all the time. As long as oil keeps coming out of the ground, the chance of it hitting us harder is always going to be there. Projections only go out three days and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be onshore in that time period. Everything depends on the wind and the currents and so forth.”

Whether Alabama will follow NOAA Fisheries’ lead and close state waters to fishing has yet to be determined.

“It’s still a matter to watch and see what happens,” Minton said. “We’ll work with the health department (Alabama Department of Public Health). If it looks like it might be a potential health hazard, we’ll close the waters. We don’t want people eating fish that might make them sick. But I can’t say, at this point, that that is going to happen.”

While Alabama has only 53 miles of coastal sea line, the state has more than 609 miles of tidal shoreline. Marine Resources has 2,196 square miles of management responsibility.

Because of the size of the disaster, Minton is not optimistic that Alabama will come away from the spill without some impact.

“Something is going to happen,” he said. “We’re going to get hit. It’d be a poor bet to bet against that. It’s a matter of how hard and how heavy. If wind conditions keep up, it could move to the west or possibly back out to sea. But, you can’t count on that. The cold front hasn’t been entered into the (computer) model, yet, but we’re hopeful it will take part of it out to sea.”

One of BP’s strategies to deal with the spill is to apply dispersants to the oil, but Minton warns that may not be a good strategy near shore.

“If it’s shallow water and you drop a dispersant on it, that could cause problems, too,” he said. “It could cause a problem with the dissolved oxygen and the introduction of toxic material. It appears to be a better solution in deeper water.”

The worst-case scenario that the Alabama coast will become awash in crude oil has Minton and his staff on edge.

“Our biggest concern is it coming in and getting into the marshes,” Minton said. “Some people are worried about the beaches. We can clean the beach. You can’t clean up a marsh like you can a beach. Cleaning a marsh is difficult. Eighty percent of the sea life in the Gulf spends a portion if its life up in the estuaries.

“That’s what’s going to hurt us. It’s going to hurt us in terms of basic production at the phytoplankton, zooplankton level, as well as shrimp. Then you just move on up the ladder with fish and so forth. So it’s a major concern for us to make sure that we protect the marsh areas.”

Major Chris Blankenship, head of Marine Resources’ Enforcement Section, said an Area Contingency Plan that has been developed over a number of years identifies the environmentally sensitive areas that would be impacted in just a scenario. The primary list of sensitive areas include the north side of Dauphin Island, Grand Bay, parts of Portersville Bay that include Coffee Island and Marsh Island, West Fowl River, Heron Bay, Bon Secour NWR on north side of Fort Morgan, Weeks Bay and Perdido Pass, some around Walker Island and Robinson Island.

Blankenship said that between 250,000 and 300,000 feet of boom material has been deployed so far. The booms will take constant maintenance to deal with weather and tidal movements.

“Our goal now is to identify other areas as more boom material becomes available,” Blankenship said. “We’re not just sitting here waiting to see what it’s going to do. We’re trying to be as prepared as we can to protect our marine resources – estuaries, oyster reefs and sensitive areas that mean a great deal to the livelihood and enjoyment of the people of Alabama.”

Speaking of oyster reefs, Blankenship said a new type of barrier is being tested around Dauphin Island that could be used to protect the new oyster reef just created through the Oyster Relay program.

“It’s an accordion-type barrier that has a fence inside of it that can be backfilled with sand to anchor it in place,” he said. “They’ve put about two miles of it on the north side of Dauphin Island to see how it’s going to do. Depending on the oil that gets here, it can be placed around the new oyster reef to protect it not only from the oil on top but the oil down in the water column or across the bottom.”

There has been a tremendous outpouring of volunteer support from groups like Mobile Baykeeper, CCA of Alabama, Weeks Bay Estuary Program and Mobile Bay National Estuary Program to name a few.

“We appreciate all the people who want to volunteer,” Minton said. “Our main concern is directing the effort. What we’re trying to do is get people on the list. They are going to have to be haz-mat (hazardous materials) certified when this thing comes in. ADEM and BP are working on doing this. The contractors BP is using won’t use anybody that hasn’t been haz-mat certified.”

Those who wish to volunteer should contact BP at 866-448-5819. BP met with charter boat captains and local officials in Orange Beach Monday to explain how the charter boats can file claims to be reimbursed for lost income, as well as receive haz-mat training to be ready when contractors need to hire additional vessels.

Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley also attended the meeting and said ADCNR is ready to assist the Alabama Department of Environmental Management when the opportunity arises.

“Although ADEM is the lead agency in this effort, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will work to facilitate action between BP and our affected citizens,” Lawley said. “We want to make sure folks know we’re there and will help out any way possible.”

Even though this spill could prove to have an unparalleled environmental impact, Minton cautions that the public should not forget the positive aspects the rigs have on the Gulf of Mexico fishery.

“Drilling rigs have provided a lot of habitat,” Minton said. “These deep-water rigs are beacons to go to for billfish and other big game species. Remember the Ram Powell, a lot of times you can go there and drop your billfish lures and hook up right there. So the rigs do provide a lot of habitat. Heretofore, we haven’t had any problems. When you have a problem this big, it makes you look at everything totally different, I guess. The positive aspects of the rigs are they are utilized as habitat and provide a lot of positive fishing experiences for a lot of people.

“I do think the energy companies have been very responsible in terms of what they’ve done. Thus far, I think BP is taking a stand-up position on this and trying to take care of the problem.”

Visit http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov for more information.

PHOTOS: (by David Rainer) Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley, right, checks on the progress of deployment of protective booms around Cat Island off the Alabama coast as staff photographer Billy Pope documents the effort. Workers feed out another length of boom material to completely encircle Coffee Island south of Bayou La Batre as the effort to protect the barrier islands from a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues.

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