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July 04, 2020

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March 21, 2001

NOAA, Coast Guard Prepare for Oil Spills

by Pam Wingrove

University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension

Florida Bay Education Project

Once upon a time shipwrecks were the basis of a thriving industry in the Florida Keys. In fact, Key West had the highest per capita income in the state based on the salvaging business. Some stories even claim that ships were lured to their destruction by looters on shore. Today ship wrecks and groundings are justly feared not only for the potential loss of human life and valuable cargo but for the threat to the even more valuable natural resources, coral reefs and mangrove islands.

Key West was recently, June 12 through June 16, the site of a training course held bythe U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hazardous Materials Response Division (NOAA Hazmat) on responding to oil spills in tropical marine environments. "The proximity of the Keys to important shipping lanes and the number of smaller vessels in the area demand that emergency response officials be at the ready in the event of an oil or hazardous materials spill," stated Lt. Richard Wingrove of NOAA Hazmat. "Many factors must be considered during a response event including type of material that has been spilled, water circulation patterns in the area, types of habitats that may be impacted, logistics of reaching and getting necessary equipment to a spill site and the appropriate methods to use to cleanup a spill," pointed out Wingrove. "Response officials need to have all of this information at their disposal during an event to insure the most appropriate and safest response."

Approximately 30 responders from USCG, NOAA, the National Park Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection gathered to learn the latest techniques and technologies available to respond to oil spills in the area. This important training included understanding how oil impacts sensitive tropical ecosystems and how to effectively cleanup a spill while minimizing impacts to the environment. Poor handling of a cleanup operation can result in as much damage as the oil itself

"In a response, the first concern is for the protection of human life. Insuring the safety of those on the endangered vessel and others in the vicinity is the first consideration," said Wingrove. Officials also consider the ecology of the area and gear their response techniques to minimize impacts to the environment. In our area, coral reefs and mangroves are particularly at risk during a spill incidence.

The types of methods available to protect these habitats include booming and skimming and applying disperants. Booming and skimming are mechanical methods involving corralling the oil and sucking it from the water and are the preferred method of removal. Dispersants are chemical compounds that can be added to the water to break the oil slick into small droplets that can be dispersed through the water column.

Oil is lighter than water and unless sea conditions are rough and stir up the water or corals extend to the water's surface corals will not directly contact spilled oil. Mangroves, however, are different. If oil reaches mangroves, it is very difficult to remove without also severely damaging the plants themselves. Oil that reaches and enters mangroves can become a chronic source of pollution for many years.

Teamwork is key during a spill emergency. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection jointly oversee the emergency response. NOAA Hazmat coordinates scientific expertise for the response. "Of course we all hope that our services won't be needed," stated Wingrove. "But our goal is to make sure we are well prepared if that emergency call comes in."

For more information contact the Florida Bay Education Project at 305-852-3592. Additional information on a variety of topics is available from the University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, 5100 College Road, Stock Island or call at 292-4501; fax = 292-4415; email or visit our web site Our services are free and available to all without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.

The Florida Bay Education Project is an archived site. For more information go to NOAA's South Florida Ecosystem Education Project at