Clean up mission: A pelican affected by the Louisiana oil spill is cleaned. Despite the efforts to save the ­animals experts have said that birds that have been saturated in oil are unlikely to survive regardless. *Photo by Reuters/Newscom
Clean up mission: A pelican affected by the Louisiana oil spill is cleaned. Despite the efforts to save the ­animals experts have said that birds that have been saturated in oil are unlikely to survive regardless. *Photo by Reuters/Newscom

An emergency task force will meet this week to formulate Bermuda’s response to the BP oil spill as experts now predict the disaster will impact the island.

Bermuda’s Environmental Protection director Fred Ming travelled to Louisiana last week to meet with scientists and agencies coordinating the response to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Dr. Ming said it was likely the oil, gushing from a deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico, would reach Bermuda in some form.

But he dismissed the doomsday scenario of a slick of fresh oil washing up on our iconic South Shore beaches.

It is most likely to arrive here in the form of tar balls — unsightly but less damaging to marine life.

But the ability of scientists to predict the impact of the spill has been hampered by the unprecedented scale of the disaster and BP’s controversial use of chemical dispersants.

Some experts, including Dr. Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer with links to Bermuda, have criticized the use of chemicals to disperse the oil. Dr. Earle told a U.S. Congress panel last week that the toxic dispersants will make the ocean look a little better on the surface but make circumstances a lot worse underneath.

Dr. Ming admitted the chemicals had introduced an “unknown quantity” that made the impact of the spill harder to assess.

He will convene a meeting of Bermuda’s oil pollution response team — a panel of experts including representatives from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science, Conservation Services, Marine and Ports and the Department of Environmental Protection — to discuss Bermuda’s response this week.

But he said that with so much unknown about how the spill will develop, Bermuda’s best position is to maintain a watching brief.

Dr. Ming added: “Once it hits the Florida strait it will enter the Gulf Stream and then we can say with some degree of certainty that we will see this oil spill.

Tar balls

“The historical prediction would be that we would see tar balls float up.

“I don’t know, given the chemical dispersants that have been applied on a large scale, whether that is a prediction we could still make. The only thing we can do, therefore, is wait and see.”

Dr. Ming said the task of the oil pollution response team will be to ascertain what resources it needs at its disposal and be ready for a worst case scenario.

Bermuda would normally be able to rely on support from the U.S. Coastguard in the event of an environmental disaster.

But with the service likely to be fully deployed in dealing with the impact in the States, it is possible the island will have to look to other countries for support.

Oil has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of more than 12,000 barrels a day — the equivalent of 500 truckloads — since the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20.

Efforts to stem the flow have so far proved fruitless and experts are calling the spill the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Researchers at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research released computer models last week predicting the oil would be carried on the Gulf loop current and could hit beaches on the east coast as early as July before being swept on the Gulf Stream to Bermuda.

One model, widely published on YouTube, shows the slick moving round the Florida pan handle, along the U.S. coast and swarming across Bermuda by early September.

Dr. Tony Knap, the director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, cautioned against bold predictions about where the oil would end up.

He said the currents are unpredictable and the high likelihood of an active hurricane season muddies the waters even further.

Dr. Knap believes it is a “bit of a stretch” to suggest the spill could reach Bermuda in three months and insists it would be diluted significantly if and when the oil did hit the island.

“It is not an ‘it’,” he cautioned.

“There are hundreds of patches of oil — this oil, Louisiana light crude, weathers very quickly and forms tar quickly.

“It clumps together but the thousands of miles of ocean will change its characteristics.”

The effect on marine life is even harder to predict. 

Phillipe Rouja, Conservation Services director, said his department was preparing for some form of impact.

He added: “We are hopeful it will not directly affect us but the interconnectedness of ocean systems and ecology means that life in the oceans around Bermuda could experience indirect effects from this tragedy even though we are far from the source or site of major impact.

“Things like the disruption of food webs that extend into the Atlantic are hard to measure but that does not make them any less real.” 

Dr. Ming said the best thing Bermuda can do is to monitor developments in the U.S. and stay in touch with scientists on the frontline of the fight against the oil spill.

He insists there is no need for Bermudians to panic and that his department was staying on top of the situation.