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Gulf oil spill: Florida fears contamination

June 3, 2010 |  5:25 pm

Fla birds
A sunny afternoon on the coast of West Florida turned gloomy Thursday with the dread that a strong wind could push sticky, toxic petroleum onto its sugar-sand beaches and wildlife-rich wetlands. It felt like the sobering moments before a hurricane’s impact: Florida's governor, attorney general and chief financial officer and a U.S. senator dashed to the Pensacola area for briefings and inspections. Boat crews hurried to finish installing or repairing floating oil barriers.

Reports that sheen and tar balls -- or “oil balls” as they are often called around Pensacola -- have drifted to within half a dozen miles of the coast put the outer tentacles of the spill at its closest to Florida since crude began to spread across the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, in the wake of BP's catastrophic deep-sea well blowout.

On Thursday, Mike Newell converted his prized deep-sea charter fishing boat into a mud-dredging machine. He has had to cancel a month’s worth of outings because of federal closures of fishing areas --  now nearly a third of the gulf’s U.S. waters. Instead of hauling in blue marlin, he will now ferry scientists, beginning today, to dredge up samples of the gulf’s bottom to test for toxic crude.

“They told me I could be doing this for six days or six months,” said Newell, 63. “I just hope they don’t hang us out to dry. Our fishing season is over -- done.”

Wisteria Marchant, a Pensacola artist, brought her two preschool daughters to the beach Thursday, fearing it was the eve of a disaster. “My daughters’ lives will be defined by pre-spill and post-spill,” Marchant said.

U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, commander of the spill response, acknowledged in a media briefing that winds were driving crude oil north and east. “This is a collection of spills, not a monolithic spill,” Allen said. “It is approaching the southern areas of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida."

To defray Florida’s expenses preparing for oil damage, Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday formally asked BP for an additional $50 million on top of $25 million BP has already paid. “It is critical that Florida be provided the resources to respond swiftly and effectively to safeguard our shores and estuaries from the continued potential impact to our shores,” Crist said in a letter to BP America President Lamar McKay.

Money wasn’t the only focus. During visits to emergency operation centers, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) repeated his call for President Obama to order the military to take control of efforts to fight the spill. “If the oil continues to gush, you’re going to have so much oil out there it’s going to be one massive operation,” Nelson said. “There’s one organization that is unique to be able to do that, to have the command and control and to have the capability to coordinate the public sector and private sectors. And that’s the military.”

Moments before a helicopter tour with Crist, Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum criticized a lack of equipment to keep the spill away from Florida shores, including boats equipped to skim oil from the water’s surface. He also found fault with "the absence of anyone on the ground to make an actual decision. Everything has to go back to a central command in Mobile [Ala.] and it takes a lot longer.”

The state's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, called for federal intervention of another sort -- compensating businesses distressed by the ripple effect of absent vacationers and beach-goers. She said two dozen owners of small businesses in Pensacola describe losses of “tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars” and yet have received little compensation from BP.

“I think it’s time for BP to be out of the picture,” Sink said. “The federal government needs to come in here and provide immediate compensation for these businesses who are getting ready to lay off employees. BP is not the party to be making the decisions yes or no about the livelihood of these businesses.”

-- Kevin Spear in Pensacola Beach

Photo: Ibises in the Florida surf. Much of the state's wildlife is dependent on mangrove swamps and other wetlands along the coast. Credit: Everglades Foundation/Brian Call Photography