Tar balls roll up the beaches at Pensacola, Florida

Miami HeraldJune 4, 2010 

PENSACOLA -- Tar balls and tar cakes rolled onto the shores of Pensacola Beach Friday morning, just as federal officials announced that a cap over the gusher has started to work.

It's still not clear whether the debris and gooey balls in Pensacola are from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said Brad Hattaway, the Escambia County emergency planning coordinator.

No tar has been spotted west of Pensacola at Perdido Key, Hattaway said.

On CBS' "The Early Show," Gov. Charlie Crist said if those reports are correct, "we hope that we can keep any more from coming ashore."

President Barack Obama was en route Friday to visit the region after canceling a trip to Indonesia and Australia.

On Friday morning, Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the disaster, announced the first breakthrough of good news: The containment cap over the gusher has started to capture flow at a rate estimated at 1,600 barrels a day.

Allen said that while it is not complete and those numbers are estimates, the method is having the effect of pumping up some of the oil and taking it into containment vessels "like taking your finger off a straw.’’

Nevertheless, the impact of the worst oil spill in U.S. history began to be felt on Pensacola beach, where people began collecting handfuls of tar balls and other blobs Friday morning. Some of the muck was the consistency of chocolate pudding, while others were more solid.

``I got a bottle full of it,'' said Tonya Gill, a lifelong Pensacola resident. ``Brings you to tears.''

Heather Baker and her husband and two sons were planning to visit Pensacola Beach -- as they do a couple of times a year -- on the Fourth of July.

``I told my husband, we better come down now before the oil,'' said Baker, a teacher from Brandon, Miss.

Friday morning, 6-year-old Keane waded into the surf with his boogie board -- and came out with tar on his arms and board, his mother said.

``He knew what it was,'' she said.

The tar came off his body with a towel, but it stuck to the purple board.

Keane and his 8-year-old brother, Colin, kept swimming and digging in the sand, undeterred.

``The county health department has said it is not a health risk,'' said Bob West, director of public safety for the Santa Rosa Island Authority. ``But it is a contaminant, so people should not be picking it up -- though they're doing so anyway.

``The real threat today is the surf and the current,'' West said.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink was briefed by the U.S. Coast Guard about their plan for the advancing oil spill in Florida.

Somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, according to government estimates. Eleven workers were killed in the blast.

``We are continuing to keep a close watch on the oil spill and are prepared to respond to any impacts we may experience,'' Crist said Friday. ``Florida is still open and we encourage everyone to go fishing and enjoy Florida seafood products.''

The governor also announced that a regional economic transition program has been established whereby impacted fishermen and affected businesses can now qualify for economic injury loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In Florida, to be prepared, workers moved in booms and a skimmer to try to catch the oil before it reached the shore.

West said 11 BP crews have been out on Pensacola Beach collecting the tar.

Some tar balls, he said, are ``much, much older than 45 days'' and presumably not from the spill.

The U.S. Coast Guard has enlisted 928 charter boats, fishing boats and other vessels to be deployed in Florida waters for laying boom and skimming oil. The Coast Guard is also preparing vacuum trucks to collect oil before it goes into Escambia Bay.

In an interview with The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, Allen said that, while skimmers remain the most effective way to combat oil reaching the shores, the Coast Guard must constantly juggle which parts of the 1,300 miles of coast will see the most benefit. He acknowledged there may be some turf wars over deployment of resources between the coastal states.

``I don't think there is any doubt the resources are stretched fairly thin,'' he said. ``We are adjusting the resources the best way we can and trying to be as responsive to local officials as possible.''

Allen said that every available skimmer in the nation has been called into action, but not at the expense of oil operations in other parts of the country. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, there are operations along the Texas Coast and Mississippi River that must have the capability of responding to a spill.

``It's all hands on deck,'' he said. ``If we were to remove that, we would have to grant them a waiver and take a risk position.''

Whether to make that trade off will be an issue he discusses with the governors of the Gulf states when he meets with them in New Orleans Friday afternoon, he said.

``We've never been faced with a challenge to cover this amount of coastline.''

Both the ecology of the Panhandle's famed white sand beaches and the Sunshine State's tourism industry are at great risk.

Meanwhile, driven by strong winds and weather, oil impacted the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery in Louisiana, which resulted in 60 birds, including 41 pelicans, being coated with oil. These birds are being rescued and taken to the Fort Jackson Rehabilitation Center by wildlife responders, veterinarians, biologists and wildlife rehabilitators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and a team of other wildlife responders will assess the situation as it evolves and will continue to work around the clock to restore the rookery and its natural habitat.

BP said it is expected to take one or more days for flow rates of oil and gas to stabilize.

All of these operations are complex, involve risks and uncertainties and have to be carried out by remotely operated vehicles at 5,000 feet under water. Systems such as the containment cap have never before been deployed at these depths and conditions.

The Gulf of Mexico's no-fishing zone was also closing in on Florida. The federal government expanded its closure area to cover 88,502 square miles -- 37 percent of Gulf waters -- from the western end of the Panhandle south toward Cuban waters.

The no-fishing zone was also edging toward the Florida Keys, which this week had a spate of reports of sheen and tar ball discoveries in the vicinity of Duck Key, near Long Key around mile marker 60. Preliminary tests, however, found the contamination came from elsewhere -- not the wrecked rig that has been dumping 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf for six weeks.

Crist announced that his request for a Fishery Failure Determination for Florida has been granted by the United States Department of Commerce. The governor made the request Thursday, based on the growing impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on fishing communities throughout the state.

``The quick response of the federal government to this request is a positive step toward protecting Florida's hard-working citizens,'' Crist said. ``We are continuing to keep a close watch on the oil spill and are prepared to respond to any impacts we may experience. Florida is still open and we encourage everyone to go fishing and enjoy Florida seafood products.''

Once oil reaches Sunshine State beaches, the governor said, the state will run an advertising campaign to educate the public on ``where it is, and maybe more importantly, where it is not.''

The state also asked the public to be on watch for oil along Florida's coastline and to report sightings to 1-877-2-SAVE-FL (1-877-272-8335), or dial #DEP from most cellphones.

In other news Friday:

• Allen provided a briefing to answer questions on the progress of the administration-wide response to the BP oil spill, reiterating that BP is responsible for the impact of the spill.

• The Obama administration sent BP a bill for $69 million for spill-related response and recovery costs. The White House said it would continue to bill BP.

• Crist wrote Lamar McKay, president of BP America, requesting $100 million to cover the costs of the spill in Florida. The funds would support the efforts of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. He asked for another $50 million to cover the costs of ongoing preparedness efforts.

• The newly established Interagency Alternative Technology Assessment Program announced a new effort to collect and review oil spill response solutions from scientists and vendors.

• Public Citizen and seven other public interest groups, including Greenpeace, protested in the nation's capital against BP's mismanagement of the Gulf disaster.

(Klas reported from Washington, D.C., Mazzei from the Florida Panhandle and Brown from Miami. Staff writer Erika Bolstad also contributed from Washington. )

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