KEY WEST, Fla. — News spread quickly Wednesday that tar balls found on beaches in the Lower Florida Keys were not from the Gulf of Mexico spill, a welcome reprieve for residents still fearful about the fate of their vacation mecca.
Lab results released Wednesday, after the U.S. Coast Guard used a Falcon jet to whisk the samples from Miami to a lab in Groton, Conn., revealed the 50 or so three- to eight-inch tar balls did not come from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The Coast Guard lab's findings were conclusive, a statement said, even as the source of the spill that spawned the tar balls was still not known.
Still, the Deepwater Horizon's oil spill loomed large over the future of the 120-mile string of islands that stretch south of Miami, part of a fragile interdependent ecosystem of mangroves and seagrass.
Wednesday morning, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, director of response policy handling the Gulf disaster from Washington, disclosed the bleak news that the oil spill had entered the loop current.
Zukunft forecast it would take "seven to eight days to reach the Straits of Florida.''
The developments dealt a mixed message. The Coast Guard said it was still committed to help clean up the contamination on Keys beaches, even with its source unknown.
But, for people whose livelihoods rely on the tourist industry, it was welcome news tempered by the need to still prepare for the worst.
``Of course we're happy that this doesn't happen to be from that spill,'' said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association. ``But we're still in wait-and-see mode. We still have all the plans in place on how to manage this.''
She found a bright spot of reassurance in the development:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association had earlier reported that currents had not yet brought the slick from the oil spill to South Florida, and the Coast Guard lab results showed they were right.
``The good news is that the information that we've been getting is accurate,'' she said. ``And that's big. It's really encouraging.''
In Tallahassee, the state's emergency response team offered a potential shorter timeline until the spill hit the Sunshine State.
``Winds/currents continue to keep the plume away from the Florida coast for at least the next 72 hours,'' said an 11:30 a.m. advisory. ``Florida continues to monitor the location of the loop current and make preparations to safeguard the state's shoreline. ''
In Key West, Coast Guard Capt. Pat DeQuattro said the still unknown origins of the tar balls found in four locations ``in no way diminishes the need to continue to aggressively identify and clean up tar ball-contaminated areas in the Florida Keys.''
They included Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Smathers Beach in Key West, Big Pine Key and Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
A new computer model also forecast black oil ringing the Florida peninsula next week, stoking fears for the state's tourism industry that fallout from the massive BP oil spill had reached the Sunshine State.
``Certainly at this point in time, it's a relief to know the oil from the leak has not reached the Keys,'' said Becky Herrin, a spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. ``You have to keep in mind we're still preparing for the possibility and keeping a close eye.''
The discoveries of the tar balls in the Keys earlier in the week stirred many concerns. For the environment, should the oil waste reach the Keys' precious mangroves. For the Florida economy, both its tourism and fishing industries, after federal authorities imposed a fishing ban in 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico.
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