ATLANTA --- Thursday's hearing before a special Senate committee demonstrated why preparing for disaster never comes at a convenient time.
Georgia is gripped by staggering budget problems just as marine science experts are calling for increased investment in environmental monitoring of the potential effects of the BP oil spill that may be migrating toward the Peach State.
If the oil makes it the 1,000 miles to Georgia's coast, then BP picks up the tab for the clean up and losses to the fishing and tourism industries.
In the mean time, the job of looking out for evidence of the oil is being borne by taxpayers who naturally hope there's never any oil to find.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle announced the creation of the committee and selection of its chairman Sen. Ross Tollison, R-Perry, who already chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Joining him are Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, supplying the voice of experience as the dean of the Senate and Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, offering the coastal perspective.
"The potential impact of just one drop of crude on the environmental, economic, and even psychological state of Georgia is too important to leave to chance and hopes of good fortune," Cagle said. "We must be doing all we can today to ensure Georgia's state of readiness is keen and poised for action."
In some ways Cagle's comment reflects the thinking of scientists at the hearing. One sounding the alarm is Samantha Joye, a professor in The University of Georgia's Department of Marine Science, who has spent considerable time in the Gulf of Mexico studying the flow of the oil and its impact on sea life.
"You can't spend too much on safety, and these kinds of safeguards are absolutely necessary," she told the committee.
According to Joye, the strategy the federal government encouraged BP to use to prevent Louisiana shores from being covered in oil is playing havoc on Georgia. BP is using chemical dispersants to break up oil slicks into microdroplets that sink.
The way the well spewed oil mixed with gas under pressure had the same effect, spreading the tiny droplets throughout the 1,000-foot vertical column of water. That column of water could migrate toward Georgia below the surface and get ingested by everything in the aquatic food chain up to shell fish, shrimp and grouper that is sold commercially here. It could also threaten coral on Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary 16 miles east of Sapelo Island.
"The actual flow rate is still unclear," she said. "We kind of know how much is on the surface. We don't know how much is below the surface."
That is why the state needs to deploy a variety of technology to try to spot it, notes Charles Hopkinson, director of the Sea Grant program at UGA.
The list sounds exotic, from radar buoys to fluorescence monitors that look for a sheen on the water to gliders that ride up and down below the surface floating along the current. He also calls for frequent tests of what he terms sentinel fish --- the canaries in the coal mine --- sponges, oysters and clams that filter large amounts of water in their feeding.
If any tar balls are found, they need to be fingerprinted, a method of categorizing their unique mix of chemical compounds to see if they're from the BP spill or a passing ship.
To all that, the state should step up air-quality monitoring for the harsh chemicals used in the dispersants, Joye warned.
"Where does the air flowing over the Gulf of Mexico end up? It ends up on us. And rain brings down things that are derived from the Gulf of Mexico onto us here," she said.
There is a hitch for state policy makers, notes Dr.Betsy Kagey, an epidemiologist with the Department of Community Health.
"We have no idea what to measure for," she said, because the chemical ingredients of the dispersants and what they break down into aren't available to the public.
These recommendations are all on top of what Georgia is already doing, and that's stretching the budget as it is. A multi-agency response team is meeting regularly, conferring with Gulf states and the federal government, and stepping up routine monitoring of water quality that was scheduled to be phased down to save the state money.
Tolleson said money would have to be moved around in the budget to cover the current efforts. That was one day before news came that Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered all agencies except the Department of Education to cut another 4 percent from their spending.
Tolleson also instructed Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Clark to tally up what more is needed to be spent. Clark hopes he can convince neighboring states and the federal government to recognize their shared concerns and contribute to the kitty.
If there is a silver lining, it's that Georgia's coastal tourism and shrimping businesses are getting a boost for now. Shrimp prices are up 14 percent, and lodging revenues in Glynn County are 10 percent higher than last year, although they still haven't risen to pre-recession levels.
All in all, the timing of the potential disaster couldn't be much worse. And as Clark reminded the committee, at least the Gulf states other than Florida get royalties from the oil drilling that help support their state budgets for disaster preparedness. Georgia doesn't even get that.
(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News. He can be reached at email@example.com or (404) 589-8424.)