Legislators urge preparation for oil threat

Reps. Chip Campsen (left), R-Isle of Palms, and Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, have introduced legislation for a contingency plan if the oil from the Gulf spill makes it to South Carolina's shores.

COLUMBIA -- Charleston legislators have called on state government to be prepared in the event that oil from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes it to South Carolina's shores.

Reps. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, and Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, have introduced legislation that prompts the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Department of Natural Resources and the governor's office to put together a contingency plan. Officials said encouragement from legislators is welcome, but emergency plans are in place.

"Look at the disaster we've had in Louisiana. That is totally man-made, and it's an environmental and ecological and economic catastrophe of epic proportions," Limehouse said. "We've got to really focus hard on keeping our coast pristine because our fish, our oysters, our shrimp are going to have to carry the bulk of the country's appetite for wild seafood."

The concurrent resolution, which does not carry the force of law, is pending final approval. It calls on the agencies and the governor to assess the success of different actions in the Gulf to clean up the spill to determine what solutions work best, and report back to the Legislature.

An offshore oil rig exploded April 20 and has since become the worst oil spill in the nation's history, releasing even more oil into the water than the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

The concern for South Carolina is the chance the spill could be picked up by the Gulf's so-called Loop Current, then moved through the Florida straits and into the Atlantic Ocean, where it could be captured by the Gulf stream current and carried north along the East Coast, according to Thom Berry, DHEC media relations director. In that scenario, oil and tar balls could damage the 187 miles of the state's coastlines and its estuaries.

"The potential is small, but we're keeping an eye on it," Berry said. "We have to be ready."

The state's overall coastal response plan is coordinated by the Coast Guard, Berry said. Responders have held conference calls and internal meetings to prepare, and they receive regular briefings, he said.

Likewise, Gov. Mark Sanford's director of communications, Ben Fox, said the governor commends the legislators' attention to the situation and the call for preparedness. State agencies are at a heightened state of readiness and continue to monitor the situation, he said.

Mel Bell, director of DNR's fisheries management office, said between 80 percent and 90 percent of the seafood South Carolinians consume is imported.

The reduction in supply from the Gulf spill could be filled with foreign imports, but people have the opportunity to choose domestic, said Frank Blum, executive director of the South Carolina Seafood Alliance.

"If you buy domestic, you get the economic multiplier -- the money stays in the state," Blum said. "And it helps our local people and, besides that, it's safe, it's fresher, it tastes good, it's healthy."