A scientific computer modeling study released Thursday shows that oil pulsing from the April 20 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico could slip into the Gulf Stream's loop current and begin to affect Grand Strand beaches by the end of the month, but area officials say they are ready to respond.
The S.C. House of Representatives this week passed a resolution calling on the state Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the governor's office to "immediately begin developing a contingency plan in the event the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico is swept by currents up the southeastern seaboard."
Adm. Bob Papp, Coast Guard commandant, has been working this week to fine-tune Coast Guard support to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort.
The models released Thursday show that once the slick joins the loop current, it could move northward at up to 100 miles a day.
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It would flow up to Cape Hatteras, N.C., and then turn northeast out into the Atlantic, according to the models, which were produced by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and produces climate science for universities.
The six different models are simulations - not forecasts - meaning they don't say exactly how the oil could flow. The oil slick would be affected by local weather conditions and the ever-shifting pattern of the loop current.
DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said there already is a plan in place for oil spills, both for his agency and with the U.S. Coast Guard, which would be the primary federal responder if the now still-remote possibility of oil reaching these beaches became a probability.
The models vary in how the oil would behave in the loop current, with models showing that the oil could take up to three months to join the Gulf Stream. They don't show how much oil, if any, would wash ashore the coastlines of Southeastern states, or how the slick might be affected by a tropical storm.
The models assume the oil continues to flow through June 20, but make various assumptions about how the loop current could act in the coming weeks. All, though, show oil eventually riding the loop current thousands of miles up the coastline to Hatteras.
Berry said DHEC is part of the Coast Guard's Area Contingency Plan, and has been in discussions with state agencies for weeks now.
Emergency plans are written broadly, he said, because every disaster brings its own specific requirements, and agencies statewide are beginning to talk about the potential specifics of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projections speak in ifs, and say 'if' the oil gets into the Atlantic, it's likely the Gulf Stream would capture it," Berry said. "But the Gulf Stream fluctuates between 50 and 60 miles out to sea. It's possible that pockets of oil could break off from the stream and travel ashore, but the probability is low.
"By the time it got here, we think it would be heavily weathered and depleted."
But if it happened, or even if it looked like a strong possibility, the effects on Grand Strand tourism could be devastating, said Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League.
"Based on what we are seeing in the Gulf, without a doubt it would have an impact," Davis said. "Beaches there that haven't even been affected yet are seeing vacation cancellations as people are deciding they don't want to risk ruining the vacation time they do get, and are backing out of reservations while they can still get their money back."
That would be a rough one-two punch for the Grand Strand, which saw a drastic drop in revenue last year because of the recession and Myrtle Beach's efforts to push the May motorcycle rallies outside its borders, and this year, which projections say will be better than last year but nowhere close to 2007 revenue levels.
"While there's no specific formula or business model to gauge the potential impact of an oil spill, there's no denying the damage this crisis has done to the Gulf Coast," said Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brad Dean. "With millions of visitors coming to our community in large part because of the beauty and cleanliness of our beaches, negative publicity like that which BP has created has long-term implications and cannot be erased with paid advertising."
He said the chamber has identified steps to take if the spill heads for the East Coast and the media attention focuses here.
"We're fortunate to be at a greater distance from the Gulf Stream than other coastal communities, and that could be a protective buffer for us, but it won't stop the national media from hyping the possibilities," he said. "We're working closely with the Area Recovery Council Media Communications team - which includes public information officers from local governments, and public relations representatives from other organizations - to ensure that our area is prepared for any potential negative media attention.
"We're prepared to counter the negative hype with accurate information on a timely basis to ensure potential visitors are not misled about the health and cleanliness of our beaches. In fact, the communication team met last week and the full Area Recovery Council met [Thursday] morning and this was a topic at both meetings."
Dean said the Area Recovery Council was created to help restart Grand Strand tourism after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and has remained in place since.
Dean is the chairman, and said the group has worked throughout all recent hurricanes, tropical storms and last year's wildfires.
The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism issued a statement in its most recent newsletter saying "experts continue to predict little chance for the ongoing leak to present a future problem for the South Carolina coast. For their predictions to change, a significant alteration in the Gulf currents would need to occur."
Davis said he thinks it's inevitable the oil will reach the Gulf Stream, but how much and when are unknown.
He said the water currents, weather, cleanup efforts and luck have kept it out so far.
Locally, officials are just monitoring the situation and waiting to learn what their roles would be if emergency plans have to be deployed.
"The possibilities are frightening, not just for the beaches, but inland as well," Myrtle Beach City Manager Tom Leath said. "We were just talking today about the possibility that a hurricane could come along and suck up the Gulf water and deposit oily rain inland. This has the potential to impact many parts of the country."
Leath said the size of the spill would dictate the response, but no matter what, the city would simply be in a helping role.
"We can handle hurricanes, but we can't handle this," he said. "We don't have the kind of specialized equipment it takes."
Horry County Director of Emergency Management Randy Webster said his organization has been watching, too, and would be part of the emergency-plan discussions if the threat to the Grand Strand appeared more likely.
"We're just monitoring because on a county level, there's not much that can be done at this point," Webster said.
Davis, of the Coastal Conservation league, said his group is encouraged that the state's General Assembly has responded to the possible threat, but also anticipates lobbying this year to try and get the legislature to pass rules to prevent the oil industry from operating near South Carolina and encouraging the federal government not to allow it, either.
"We're working on a comprehensive energy plan that would not endanger our state, its tourism industry or the fisheries or natural resources," Davis said.
The Washington Bureau contributed to this report.