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Clearwater talks oil spill issues
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CLEARWATER – Patience may be a virtue, but not when millions of gallons of crude oil are polluting the Gulf of Mexico and could conceivably be headed for Clearwater.

“I’m disappointed in BP and I’m also disappointed in the administration,” Mayor Frank Hibbard told his City Council colleagues on May 20.

He asked their permission to send a letter to President Obama and BP, the giant oil company whose Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20 and caused the spill, asking them to speed up their efforts to plug the leak and clean up the spill.

“This, to me, is worthy of more federal attention, right now,” Hibbard said.

Although the spill is still hundreds of miles from Clearwater, its economic effects are starting to be felt here, Hibbard said. He said that European tourism agents are already steering their clients away from Florida. Those agents pledge to give their clients an enjoyable vacation and avoid anything that might degrade that experience, he explained, noting that there was a drop-off of Clearwater Beach tourism during the construction of Beach Walk.

Councilman Paul Gibson, who sells real estate on Clearwater Beach, said that buyers are becoming leery of Suncoast waterfront property, fearing that the oil spill could devalue it.

“Even if this does not hit Pinellas County but hits somewhere in Florida, people don’t understand our geography…,” Hibbard said. “There’s not the loss of life that (Hurricane) Katrina had, but from an economic standpoint, this could be several magnitudes greater. … The multiplier (effect) of this is incalculable. It could ruin this state.”

Hibbard said that several residents had asked him how they could volunteer to help with the cleanup if the oil reaches Clearwater’s beaches. He added that now might be time to start training those volunteers.

“I’d like to see an army of people,” he said. “I hope we don’t even have to deal with it. … But I don’t want to start mobilizing people after things have already hit our sand.”

City Manager Bill Horne said that the U.S. Coast Guard has been meeting with officials of all West Florida coastal counties to inform them of the progress being in the battle against the spill.

“As things develop, certainly there will be a need to be more proactive if the community feels like the government or BP is not going to do anything or is not going to be effective,” Horne said. “It’s getting more tense as the days go by.”

“The cleanup will be done by trained professionals,” said Rick Carnley, the city staffer in charge of emergency preparedness. He added that BP has already deployed 24,000 workers on the gulf coast, from Texas to Florida, to deal with the spill.

Carnley said that the only volunteers Clearwater is currently using are “beach watchers” who walk the city’s beaches with instructions to notify the proper authorities of they see any tar balls or floating oil. He added that if current projections are correct, the “loop current” will keep the slick at least 70 miles from Pinellas County shores.

He explained that Clearwater doesn’t have enough containment booms to protect its entire shoreline, so the booms would be used to protect sensitive nesting areas, and estuaries such as Clearwater Pass and Hurricane Pass, if the oil does reach the city.

“Basically, none of the beaches are going to be protected,” Carnley said.

But he told of receiving a call from the manufacturer of the two tractor-pulled “beach rakes” that Clearwater uses to clean its beaches. He said that he was glad to learn that, with minor modifications, the rakes could be used to scoop up tar balls. The manufacturer also offered to provide another rake if Clearwater needs it.

Mayor Hibbard noted that the focus now should be on stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess, and there will be plenty of time for the blame game and finger-pointing later.

Hibbard’s colleagues gave him permission to send a letter to BP and President Obama, and he promised that it “won’t be too inflammatory.”

“Given the circumstances, a little inflammatory would be OK,” Vice Mayor John Doran replied.
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