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Long-Term Response Plan for Cuban Oil Spill

Nova Southeastern University (NSU) and Florida International University (FIU) researchers have drafted a plan to best prepare South Florida for an oil spill off the coast of Cuba.

The proximity of intended Cuban oil drilling and production puts the U.S. coastal zone at risk from Florida to the Carolinas and northward. Oil from a spill would quickly enter the Gulf Stream and reach Florida's shores in hours or days with potentially devastating effects on the densely populated South Florida coastline and its coastal ecosystems. South Florida's accounts for 3.4 million jobs and 45 percent of the $587 billion contribution to Florida's GDP generated by coastal and ocean economic activity.

A likely first impact of a major spill would be the iconic and economically valuable Florida Reef Track, a coral reef ecosystem that stretches from the Dry Torgugas in the Keys to Palm Beach County. Effects could be devastating to the ecology of the reef, Florida's beaches, coastal property and South Florida’s economy.

The sustainability plan calls for a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard, other federal agencies, and a consortium of South Florida academic institutions, including Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center, Florida International University, other schools, and private industry. The Coast Guard is the designated operational leader in any response to a Cuban oil spill.

Because an oil leak originating in Cuban waters will very quickly enter Florida waters, research, planning and preparation activities must be undertaken in advance of an accident so that authorities can respond effectively.

The conceptual plan ---- a collaborative effort completed by Richard E. Dodge, Ph.D., dean of NSU’s Oceanographic Center, and John R. Proni, Ph.D., executive director of FIU’s Applied Research Center and others – was presented Monday in Sunny Isles Beach to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. At the hearing, Proni provided oral and written testimony which contained the elements of the plan.

The following were the recommendations that were highlighted:

• Implement an oil spill early-warning monitoring system using acoustic, geophysical, satellite and other relevant methods.

• Baseline assessment of the status of coral reef and associated ecosystems in the likely spill path (Straits of Florida, SE/E Florida coast) to prioritize areas for spill response and to set restoration targets should a spill occur.

• Ocean observations for description of the physical oceanography and current movements to have more complete knowledge of the ocean hydrodynamic movements of the Gulf Stream and Loop Current, shallow to deep, from the Yucatan Channel to the Southeast/East coast of Florida.

• Oil and dispersed oil toxicity characterization and toxicity studies to determine effects on a range of coral reef ecosystem and other organisms to develop risk assessments.

• Modeling for prediction of ocean dynamics for spill movement prediction over time and space both in the vertical and horizontal.

• Modeling for prediction of ecological /biological effects under various spill and response scenarios.

• Modeling to assess the potential impact of different observing strategies on baseline data collection, analysis of information, and data required for response and mitigation.

If this NSU-FIU long-term oil spill sustainability plan were to be implemented, it would involve the following elements:

1. Inviting and integrating other federal agencies, in addition to the Coast Guard, into a Cuban oil drilling/production effort for response to a Cuban oil spill.
2. Establishment of a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard and a consortium of South Florida institutions having the in-depth experience, local knowledge, data, and expertise to be most effective in our unique oceanic and coastal environments.
3. Jointly planning a system for gathering operational data and concurrently for gathering research data with quick payoff for operational activities, e.g. real-time current information for transport calculations and modeling.
4. Jointly planning and implementing a system to gather data which will be of use in longer term damage and impact issues such as oil characterization (both at well site proximity and U.S. coastal water locations), eco-toxicological impacts, coral reef, inlet and port and spatial coastal planning impacts.
5. Evaluating the use and need for, and implementing as necessary, a non-intrusive monitoring system utilizing water borne and bottom borne energies originating at the Cuban oil operation sites.

6. Utilizing/developing systems and platforms, including optical, acoustical, and sampling systems --- both manned and autonomous --- that is capable of detecting, mapping and sampling subsurface oil.

About NSU’s Oceanographic Center: A world leader in marine biological research with focus on coral reef science and shark conservation, Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center has been at the forefront of graduate and undergraduate marine science education and oceanographic research for over 48 years. Students, scientists, faculty and staff come to the Center from all corners of the globe, with the common goal of learning from the ocean’s living classrooms — in one of the most diverse ecosystems known to man.

About Nova Southeastern University: Situated on 300 beautiful acres in Davie, Florida, Nova Southeastern University is a dynamic fully accredited research institution dedicated to providing high-quality educational programs at all levels. NSU is the eighth largest not-for-profit independent institution nationally with more than 28,000 students. NSU awards associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, doctoral and first-professional degrees in a wide range of fields. Classified as a research university with “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NSU is one of only 37 universities nationwide to also be awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification.

Ken Ma | Newswise Science News
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