Exploratory oil drilling off Cuba renews oil-spill fear factor in the Keys

In Cuba’s North Basin, the Spanish company Repsol has begun risky exploration for oil and natural gas on a semi-submersible rig, now just 77 nautical miles from Key West and even closer to the ecologically sensitive Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a month or so, Repsol expects its drilling through 5,600 feet of seawater and about 14,000 feet of layered rock will reach the reservoir.

That’s frightening for many who live and work along the island chain.

Here, the memory is still fresh of the psychological hysteria and economic havoc caused two years ago by the explosion of Deepwater Horizon — despite the reality: No oil from the 4.9-million-barrel spill reached the Keys. For just the scare, British Petroleum has paid out more than $200 million in claims filed by businesses and residents of South Florida, the bulk of them in Monroe County.

“I had actual visions of oil covering Florida Bay and the mangroves and all the fish being completely devastated,” said Richard Stancyzk, longtime owner of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, where 45 fishing captains dock their boats in Islamorada. “We were hurt financially, but I’d really like to sue BP for pain and suffering. It actually made me sick and nauseous.”

That vision of oil-slicked beaches, coral reefs and marine habitat was shared by many after some scientists and government officials predicted strong currents would bring the toxic crude oil to the Keys, more than 450 miles from the site of the spill. The Today show aired a scary graphic provided by the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research that showed the oil traveling around Florida and all the way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

Fear set in. Keys residents and business owners took hazardous-materials classes, learned to clean oil off wildlife, picked up debris on beaches and complained there was not enough protective boom. They learned about the Loop Current and an eddy named Franklin. And they prayed.

The situation was made worse when national media broadcast the arrival of tar balls in Key West, leading to the misperception that the spill had reached the subtropical paradise. Visitors canceled weddings, conferences, fishing trips and diving vacations.


Since then, many lessons have been learned from the devastating spill, whose true environmental effects will not be known for years.

Science has advanced. Coordination of federal, state, local and private agencies has improved. And communication of information will be a more critical part of future responses.

“We joke about it now, but even if we have the greatest response in the world, if we are not getting the word out accurately, it doesn’t matter,” said Capt. John Slaughter, chief of planning and force readiness for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Seventh District, based in Miami.

The Coast Guard has incorporated all the lessons learned into a comprehensive offshore response plan to deal with the new threat of a major spill in waters controlled by Cuba.

“We’re certainly more ready than a year ago,” Slaughter said. “We’re not as ready as we’ll be in six months and in a year. Planning for this will never end.”

Coast Guard Sector Key West also has spent the past two years updating its more than 1,000-page area contingency plan, which now includes responding to the potential near shore and landfall issues of a massive spill coming from Cuba. Before Deepwater Horizon and the exploration of oil offshore of Cuba, the worst-case scenario for the Keys’ emergency drill was an oil tanker grounding on a reef.

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