Oil spill to hit North Carolina's coast?

Oil spill in water
May 18, 2010 9:02:44 PM PDT
New concerns are emerging from the Gulf coast oil spill centering around tar balls. The coast guard picked up 20 of them off of the Key West coast Monday.

It is now prompting fears that the oil may be trickling in the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current.

But North Carolina's point man on emergency response is tracking the spill and says the chances of oil on our beaches are very remote.

"We had a conference call with Coast Guard yesterday and they told us there was a less than 1 percent chance that that oil would reach North Carolina's coast," Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell said.

Hoell oversees North Carolina's Division of Emergency Management, which has a 50 page plan to quickly react to any coastal oil spill.

"Shipping goes by every day that's carrying oil products," he said.

However, a leading expert on ocean currents says it may take a long time and it may not wash up on the sand, but the oil, in some form, is likely drifting North Carolina's way.

"Out over a year, I would say there's almost a 100 percent chance that some part of the oil will show up off-shore in North Carolina," UNC Chapel Hill's Marine Sciences Program Professor Harvey Siem said.

Seim studies ocean circulation and currents, he says the Loop Current is a proven conveyor belt.

"Once it's in the Loop Current, it can take one to two months to get to the Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina off-shore region."

But once oil reaches the state's off-shore area, Seim says it would still need wind from the right direction to bring it onto the beach.

"I think enough time goes by, the sea weed will have tar balls in it," Siem said.

Tar balls on a beach may not require an emergency response, but the state says they are planning for them.

"All coastal states have to have that planning in place," Hoell said.

And Seim says the question of oil on the coast is a long one.

"We have to think in terms of years, unfortunately," he said.

Most people are judging the path and progress of the huge spill by the surface photos, but Seim is also interested in oil below the surface and where that stuff is going.

He says there may be as much oil deep under water and its path is much harder to predict.

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