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The US Coast Guard is preparing for the possibility that tar balls from the massive Gulf Coast oil spill might be swept up in a current and reach the southern Florida coast.
Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger, deputy national incident commander with the Coast Guard, said in testimony before a Senate committee that the government was closely watching whether the oil would be swept up into the "loop current" that moves around Florida.
"Currently it shows to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40-50 miles from the southern edge of the spill," Mr Neffenger said of the current that could sweep the oil down to the Florida Keys and even up the US East Coast.
"We are watching that carefully and as a result of that we are preparing for potential impact on the southern Florida coast and impacts around the southern Florida coast," he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing on the oil spill.
He said the oil would likely be in the form of tar balls that are a "little easier to manage" when they come ashore.
"This is not to say this is a good thing," he said. "I think it will be a more manageable piece than what we're currently looking at in the Gulf."
Once the oil is in the loop, it could take 10 days or longer to reach the Keys.
"It's only a question of when," said Peter Ortner, a University of Miami oceanographer.
In the month since an offshore drilling platform exploded, killing 11 workers, BP has struggled to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton box that got clogged with icy crystals. Over the weekend, the oil company finally succeeded in using a stopper-and-tube combination to siphon some of the gushing oil into a tanker, but millions of gallons are already in the Gulf.
The pollution could endanger Florida's shoreline mangroves, seagrass beds and the third-longest barrier reef in the world, the 221-mile-long Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which helps draw millions of snorkellers, fishermen and other tourists whose dollars are vital to the state's economy.
Pollutants can smother and kill corals - living creatures that excrete a hard exterior skeleton - or can hinder their ability to reproduce and grow. That, in turn, could harm thousands of species of exotic and colourful fish and other marine life that live in and around reefs.
From : The Telegraph