Tar balls, new forecast raise fears oil spill reaching Florida

KEY WEST, Fla. — Park rangers discovered 20 "tar balls'' on a Key West shore and spotted oil residue farther west in the Dry Tortugas Tuesday, stirring fear that the first sign of the massive BP oil spill had washed up on a Florida shore.

The Coast Guard urged calm and sent samples of the three- to eight-inch flattened tar balls for lab analysis in Groton, Conn., to determine whether the hazardous waste was from the massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico or perhaps oil remnants from a passing ship.

"There is no proof or reason to believe these tar balls are from the Gulf at this point," said Coast Guard Lt.j.g. Anna K. Dixon, adding that analysis of the tar balls' origins would not be complete before day's end.

Still, the discovery coupled with a new grim tracking map and wider federal fishing ban in the Gulf of Mexico stirred fears of a financial impact on Florida.

"While I always hope for the best, this is looking like really out-of-control bad," Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said about fresh research by the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg.

A team there predicted the Deepwater Horizon's slick would reach the Keys by this weekend -- and Miami next week.

In the Keys, however, a midday survey found a second "oil residue'' sighting at Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas, said Larry Perez, information officer for Everglades National Park.

Loggerhead is home to a well-known lighthouse in the popular if remote tourist destination -- about 70 miles west of Key West and far closer to the Gulf of Mexico.

Perez said a U.S. Coast Guard team was flying to the island to inspect the shoreline. It was not immediately known when the oil residue was spotted, or whether it was the kind of tar balls found at Fort Zachary Taylor.

The Coast Guard already had more searchers out -- by land and air -- to scout for more tar on Tuesday. Coast Guard officials could not recall the last time a concentration of 20 tar balls was found in Key West on a single day.

Florida tourism officials also sought to downplay the discovery, noting that all Sunshine State tourist attractions were still open for business, the beaches included.

A state advisory noted that, just last year there were 681 reports of "oil and petroleum incidents along Florida’s waterways and beaches," advising "these types of occurrences are not as unusual as one might think."

Yet, in Washington, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a conference call Tuesday morning that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association was expanding its fishery closure at noon to cover 19 percent of the Gulf, or 45,728 square miles.

Lubchenco did play down the threat to Florida -- at least any imminent one.

The bulk of the slick remains "dozens of miles'' north of the loop current that could drag it south then east, she said, with a long tendril of "light oil'' being sucked in by an eddy swirling from the main current.

So the drag would dilute the mass ooze off Louisiana and turn up on the Florida Keys as tar balls or strings. Or it could emulsify the oil to the consistency of mayonnaise that, she said, might never make landfall.

This video released by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Tuesday was taken May 17 and shows the oil plume from the main Deepwater Horizon leak after a tube was inserted to syphn some of the oil to the surface.

Park rangers found the first 20 tar balls throughout the day Monday off Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, a pristine beach and big tourism draw.

But they didn't call in the Coast Guard pollution control team until Monday evening and word spread through the Keys Tuesday.

"I woke up this morning and thought: ‘Oh my God,' '' said Sarah Notch, president of the Key West Attractions Association and general manager of the Pirate Soul Museum in Key West.

Keys environmentalists, meantime, put out a call to volunteers to sign up for a section of the shoreline and clean up debris through the Green Living Energy Education nonprofit.

Volunteers are trained to not touch any hazardous materials -- tar balls chief among them -- and alert authorities while clearing out more typical shoreline litter.

"We're mobilized," said Alison Higgins, president of GLEE and land conservation program manager for the Nature Conservancy in Key West.

At the website, she said, GLEE has assembled information regarding local clean-up opportunities as well as divvied up the shore in a Coast Watch map.

By Tuesday morning, with word of the tar ball discovery, she said, trained volunteers had signed up for the first 55 of 300 squares on their Coast Watch grid.

Higgins, the environmentalist, said in her 15 years in the Keys she had never heard of 20 tar balls turning up on the coast in a single day.

Asked whether she thought it was the BP spill oil, she replied: "It seems highly probable. But it doesn't really matter because we still need to do the same things'' in terms of coastal cleanup, regardless of the waste's origins.

The timing of the discovery amid national concern over the BP spill, "just ups the ante about how important it is," she said.

Related stories from McClatchy DC