BP downsizes Miami oil spill operations center


For one measure of oil worries in South Florida, take the elevator up 21 floors at the Brickell Bay office tower and flip on the lights.

The vacant space once housed part of a command center that BP and the Coast Guard established to combat oil that found its way to Florida shores as far away as Miami and Fort Lauderdale. That never happened, and now BP and Washington consider the possibility so remote they’re unwinding their joint Miami post.

“We have what I’ll call ‘right-sized’ our presence,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Moorlag, a Coast Guard spokesman assigned to the Miami center. “We’re still here. But we’re just here at a reduced capacity.”

In June, BP rented the space and other offices on the 15th floor as oil from the underwater BP well spread to the Florida Panhandle and threatened to follow sea currents to Key West and up the state’s eastern coast.

Last month, roughly 120 people worked at the Florida Peninsula Command Post — a mix of BP staffers and contractors, government meteorologists and scientists, Coast Guard officers, state officials and others.

But with the BP well capped since July 15 and now sealed with cement, downsizing has begun. BP spokesman Phil Cochrane said only about 45 people work in the center, which has been condensed to a 15th floor office in the gleaming waterfront tower, with marble floors and a fountain in the lobby.

“This is a big space with a whole lot less people than we are accustomed to,” Cochrane wrote in an e-mail Tuesday night.

The hollowed-out Miami outpost at 1001 Brickell Bay Dr. captures the step back from crisis-mode happening across Florida. But health advisories remain on Panhandle beaches and Florida’s latest daily report on the crisis said that scattered tar balls continue to wash in with the surf on the Panhandle.

Washington this week ended a fishing ban on 5,000 square miles of the Gulf along the Panhandle, after officials said no oil had been spotted in the waters since July 3.

“We never had the big oil problems that everybody thinks we had. It’s just been a perception that’s really hurt the industry,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Lee Schlesinger said on a conference call.

Three Panhandle counties were slated to let emergency declarations expire this week, following the lead of Escambia — home to Pensacola Beach, the Florida beach hit hardest by oil. In Miami on Tuesday, organizers of a seminar titled “Assessing the BP Oil Spill on Florida Real Estate” canceled the event after it became clear Gulf oil wouldn’t reach South Florida.

In early July, NOAA scientists released a report saying there was an 80 percent chance oil from the Gulf rupture would reach Miami — and continue on north to Fort Lauderdale.

But on July 29, Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral leading Washington’s response to the crisis, said there was a “very, very low chance” oil would affect South Florida or the Keys. The next day, NOAA issued a new report under the headline “Gulf’s Surface Oil Not a Threat to Southern Florida, Keys and East Coast.”

Even so, Allen has cautioned against declaring an end to the oil threat until relief wells permanently seal the damaged well. And the spokesman for Florida Peninsula Command Post emphasized that the center remains on the job — for now.

“We’re in this space as long as we need to be,” said Cochrane, whom BP transferred from Anchorage to handle media in Miami. “We’re here until we’re no longer needed.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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