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ADEM: Coastal monitoring increases

There will be a “tremendous amount” of monitoring the Gulf Coast waters in the coming future, ADEM’s Scott Hughes said Wednesday.

Hughes, chief officer of external affairs for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, spoke on the oil spill, clean up measures and recovery efforts following the explosion on Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April.

“This is a critical time for Alabama and the coastal states,” Hughes said. “We’re going to be feeling the effects of worst oil spill in U.S. history for many years to come.”

ADEM is the state’s lead agency in the recovery effort and has coordinated its efforts with 12 “sister agencies,” such as the departments of public safety, public health and the national department of homeland security, he said.

The turning point in bringing the oil to Alabama’s shores occurred last week, he said.

“There was a shift in the wind, and we saw the spill move to Alabama,” he said.

Under normal situations, ADEM monitors 25 coastal beaches in Mobile and Baldwin counties, watching for abnormal bacteria. That monitoring practiced has increased to include oil, grease and other petroleum by-products. Additionally, in-ocean stations, located three miles off the coast, monitor water quality data from the surface, mid-ocean level and along the bottom.

Air quality is now also being monitored, he said.

“The environmental and economic impacts of this event are real and are occurring every day,” Hughes said.

It’s unknown just how much oil is being captured. BP reports it is now capturing 630,000 gallons a day, and that the amount could nearly double by next week to roughly 1.17 million gallons. But the government’s estimate of the total oil leaking has been 500,000 to 1 million gallons every day.

Either way, the effects of that spillage are washing up daily on Alabama shores where ADEM assessment teams coordinate cleanup efforts. On Wednesday, oil made it through Perdido Pass to the Back Bay.

“Believe it or not, there has been one bright spot in this event,” Hughes said. “And that’s the volunteer response. Within a couple of weeks, more than 2,000 volunteers were calling in to participate in the clean up. That figure is now up to 4,000.”

Hughes said volunteers have spent countless hours doing “pre-beach cleanup,” removing trash and debris such as wood, in an effort to ease the clean up

process once the oil comes ashore.

“The response on that end has been exceptional,” he said. “It shows the connection that people have with the coast and the beaches and the people who live on the Gulf Coast.”

Hughes said the future remains uncertain.

“About the only thing we can say with certainty is that there is going to be a tremendous amount of monitoring going on,” he said. “From (ADEM) and the

(Food and Drug Administration) to ensure food safety, that the seafood is safe to eat.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Bob Riley announced that a mile-wide breach on the west end of Dauphin Island known as the Katrina Cut will be filled in to protect Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound from oil as soon as the project gains the Coast Guard’s approval.

The $15 million project will be paid for with funds provided to the state by BP, Riley said.

“Filling in Katrina Cut is critical and necessary as a protective measure,” he said.  “This gap right now does nothing but provide an opening for the oil to flow into some of our most sensitive estuaries, marshland and oyster beds. We won’t leave these areas exposed to oil when we can prevent it.”

— Stephanie Nelson