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Gulf oil spill: Tar balls in Florida Keys not from Deepwater Horizon slick, Coast Guard says

May 19, 2010 |  9:24 am

The Coast Guard announced Wednesday morning that the blobs of tar that washed up in the Florida Keys earlier this week are not related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Coast Guard analyzed the tar balls as evidence mounted that at least some oil from the spill soon would arrive in South Florida.

The analysis determined conclusively that the tar balls collected from the Keys beaches do not match the type of oil from the gulf spill, the agency announced in a news release. The source of the pollution is unknown.

"The conclusion that these tar balls are not from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident in no way diminishes the need to continue to aggressively identify and clean up tar ball-contaminated areas in the Florida Keys," said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector Key West.

Tar balls washed up in Key West, Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas and Big Pine Key, home of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.

Before they got the news, city workers and members of the Coast Guard were out Wednesday morning searching for more tar balls on the Keys beaches.

Annalise Mannix, Key West's environmental program manager, said she had doubted the current could have brought the Gulf oil to her area so fast. Sticky blobs of congealed oil occasionally turn up on beaches, having formed from oil dumped from ships' bilges, leaks from offshore rigs and natural seepage from the ocean floor.

Mannix said people in Key West have been preparing for two to three weeks for oil from the gulf spill to show up.

"Everybody that lives here is concerned, but it's not just complaining," she said. "People are prepared to clean the birds, taking hazmat courses, walking the shorelines. They're mobilizing to be ready."

Tar balls were once so common that hotels provided guests with wrapped swabs to wash the tar off their feet, said Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University.

Tougher enforcement of laws against ocean dumping sharply reduced the number of incidents, he said, but the tar balls still wash up on beaches, usually in small amounts, causing little harm.

As possible harbingers of an environmental and economic disaster, the recent tar balls set off a wave of anxiety in the Keys, where restaurants, hotels, charter boats and other businesses depend on tourists.

"Obviously, I'm very concerned," said Don Sterrath, who runs a water sports concession on Smathers Beach, where tar balls washed up Tuesday. "This is our livelihood."

Sterrath said he fielded about 25 calls Tuesday from people concerned about the spill's impact on snorkeling and dinner cruise trips.

"I told them if we have an ecological disaster, they can get a refund," he said. "But that's not happening."

-- David Flesher, South Florida Sun Sentinel, reporting from Key West


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