Friday, May 28, 2010
Texas Gulf Waits & Worries
LAPORTE -- Richard Arnhart spends much of his days monitoring wind trajectories, scientific bulletins and TV newscasts.
Parts of an oily blob three times the size of Rhode Island -- and growing -- are believed by many experts to be lumbering closer to the Texas Gulf, and Arnhart is part of the first line of defense.
As a regional director for the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program in the Texas General Land Office, Arnhart is paid by the state to fight oil spills, and he's heavily involved in state and federal contingency planning for any possible impact on Texas from the massive oil spill lurking in the Gulf of Mexico.
Communities all along the Texas coast are making similar preparations as they join the rest of the world in tracking daily developments in one of the worst oil spill disasters in history.
No one knows for sure if remnants of the spill, which was about 160 miles east of the Lone Star State late last week, will reach Texas waters. The consensus seems to be that if there is an impact it will be in the form of tar balls or a frothy substance resembling chocolate mousse. Experts don't expect any residue to hit this far west for several weeks.
Beyond that, just what threat the spill poses for a region of the state whose economy and culture is tied to the gulf is difficult to gauge. Environmentalists warn of possibly irreversible damage to the state's fragile ecosystems and endangered wildlife. Others worry about potential losses to fishing and tourism, though local officials say they have yet to see any signs of an economic backlash.
"It's going to have an impact one way or another," said state Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, chairman of the state House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness, which has scheduled a Monday hearing in McAllen to examine Texas preparations for the spill. "We swim in that ocean. We eat the food that comes out of that ocean. It's part of our [committee's] charge to be prepared for emergencies, and this is certainly an emergency that Texas should be prepared for."
'No news is good news'
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose office would be in charge of fighting residue from the spill and enforcing the cleanup, took steps late last week to calm fears about the oil slick.
"We're watching and waiting, but it's just not time to go to general quarters," said Patterson, who is scheduled to testify at Monday's hearing. "No news is good news."
Patterson sought to dispel TV reports that tar balls from the spill are already showing up on Texas beaches. Although tar balls occasionally wash ashore along the Texas Gulf, they may be decades old and could come from natural seepage or earlier spills, the land office said. An analysis on tar balls collected from Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island last week proved conclusively that the substance did not come from the oil slick in the gulf, said Cmdr. David Berliner of the Coast Guard.
Nevertheless, an out-of-control underwater gusher dumping more than thousands of barrels of oil into the gulf each day is impossible for Texans to ignore. Houston area residents watching TV last week, for example, might have seen ads aired by attorney Jim Adler offering his service to victims of the spill.
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