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Tampa Bay spill preparation requires constant vigilance and cooperation

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Florida’s stunning Tampa Bay stands out as exactly the kind of place where you have to think about hazardous materials emergencies. It was 25 years ago, on August 10, 1993, that a freighter collided with two barges near the entrance of Tampa Bay, causing a fire and spilling over 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel, devastating beaches, wildlife and habitat. Tampa Bay doesn’t want to relive it.

At 400-square miles, Tampa Bay is the largest open-water estuary in Florida. It also boasts more than 80 miles of manmade deepwater shipping channels. The Port of Tampa is also among the nation’s busiest. Every year, more than 4 billion gallons of oil, fertilizer components and other hazardous materials pass through Tampa Bay, all of it transiting the most diverse water bird nesting colonies in North America.

Preparing for and Preventing the Next Big One

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) was established by Congress (in 1991) to assist with Bay protection and improvement efforts. TBEP has a “Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan” to sustain progress in bay restoration through the year 2027. Spill prevention and response gets major attention, which TBEP divides into two broad parts:

•  Technology to improve ship coordination, and
•  A focus on specific environmental priority areas.

For example, Tampa Bay’s Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS) provides information about tides, winds and currents. The Bay is one of a few Coast Guard sites testing virtual, or electronic, navigation aids. On the policy side the Bay has a public-private sector Spill Committee that meets monthly. Readiness includes unannounced drills at industrial facilities. A full-scale test of the Area Contingency Plan is held every four years, at a cost of $100,000.

Tampa Bay is unique, but on the other hand it isn’t. Comprehensive ‘hazmat’ planning occurs everywhere. That’s because, as former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Jim Loy used to say, “If you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port.” Tampa Bay hasn’t had a major spill in 25 years, a record of success largely duplicated across the United States. On the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt in much the same way that complacency tends to distract. In as little as 10 years, autonomous vessels might transit Tampa Bay, or a hundred places in between. Stakeholders find themselves asking, “Does an accident in 1993 properly advise scenario assessments for 2023?”

Photo credit: PORTS