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Gulf oil spill: Tar, sheen and conflicting messages greet beachgoers

At Florida's Pensacola Beach on Thursday morning, a digital greeting sign flashed: “Oil on beach, stay out of gulf." But when the county health department removed a beach advisory in place since earlier this week, the sign changed to: “Swim with caution.”

Janie Bishop, a Pensacola native visiting from Atlanta, was confused. She tried to walk down to the water through the white sugar sand by Pensacola Pier with her husband. They got close enough to see an oily sheen on the water and what might have been an oil stain at the shoreline before they were stopped by BP work crews in protective gloves and boots.

Bishop approached a lifeguard switching red flags (don’t swim) for yellow (caution). “So the water’s open?” Bishop asked. Yes, said the lifeguard, the health department rescinded the advisory.

“But they’re telling me I shouldn’t cross over,” Bishop said. “How can I get to the water?” Eventually, BP crews backed off, and swimmers made their way into the green waves at Casino Beach, diving and splashing, some with daiquiris and pina coladas in hand.

Bishop stayed on the shore.

“I don’t think it should be open if they’re still working,” she said. “Clean it up. I mean, I’m from here. Tourism is the big thing. But people could be tracking it back out. From a distance, it looks fine, but when you go up close and see it — I’m not going in.”

Much is at stake on Casino Beach. Tourism and development, twin industries that helped build Florida, depend as much on image as reality. Tour groups have dwindled in recent weeks, beach weddings have been canceled and condo sales have cooled, locals say. But if the beaches are open, they hope, the tourists will come. If the beaches look clean, they will swim, and possibly buy.

Health officials removed the advisory from the three-mile stretch of beach after noting the tar balls and swaths of black oil that alarmed locals and drew Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday had been cleared and had not returned, said Molly Payne-Hardin, a spokeswoman for the Escambia County Health Department. They did not test the water, she said.

“The presence of oil products is not so significant that a swimmer cannot avoid them,” she said.

Officials from the University of West Florida and the state Department of Health are testing water samples, Payne-Hardin said. But authorities had yet to see the results Thursday, and officials with the office did not return phone calls. By day’s end, federal officials had not lifted the advisory from the adjacent stretch of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

About 250 BP workers have been clearing oil residue, which they refer to as “tar mousse,” from the beach since Wednesday, according to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Matt Anderson, who was at the beach Friday. They work through the night, when the temperature drops (the heat index was 105 Thursday) and the viscous oil solidifies and is easier to remove, he said. They wear red head lamps designed not to disturb nesting turtles.

As he stood on Casino Beach on Thursday afternoon, Anderson compared clearing oil from sand in the heat of the day to “shoveling molasses with a spoon.” Even at night, he said, “it’s a painstaking job. You’ve got tar balls that are the size of a quarter.”

That did not trouble several dozen beachgoers in the surf Thursday.

“If I don’t see any, I don’t worry about it,” said John Laritz, 78, a retired construction superintendent from Pensacola who took a dip at the beach Thursday. He said health department officials did the right thing.

“They’re trying to get people here to the beach,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”

Gabriel Huffman, 20, a nursing student visiting from Lafayette, La., went in the water with her friends, in bikinis. So did Gina McGrath, 37, a registered nurse from Lafayette, Ga., with her children.

“We could take whatever gets on us off,” McGrath said.

Katina Tucker, 37, a stay-home mom in Pensacola, told her three children — ages 13, 11 and 4 — not to go underwater when she left to take some photographs of the cleanup. Of course, they did, and they got some oil on their legs. 

Tucker started to cry.

“Our whole beach is supposed to look like that,” she said, pointing toward the white dunes, away from the stained shoreline. “My daughter’s not supposed to get oil on her legs.”

She surveyed the water, where two skimmer boats had strung a stretch of white boom between them to sweep up oil.

“I’m sure it’s prettier now than it will be in a month,” she said.

Under an umbrella, a woman in a great blue heron T-shirt stood choking back tears. The oil, Cheryl Wiggins said, will never come out: It’s seeping into the sound and the bays.

“It’s all poisoned now,” Wiggins, 60, said as she watched the sheen swirl around one of the Louisiana girls wearing a blue bikini and a fleur de lis belly-button ring. “I see the natural world dying right in front of me. That’s hard to take. This is the end right here in front of you. It’s lost, all lost.”

This was the beach Wiggins’ father used to bring her to as a child. He cast nets for mullet from shore while she and her twin brother ran through the surf, gigging flounders with long poles. “Chasing chow,” they called it. Now her father is dead, her brother killed in Vietnam, and she has taken to calling the beach she had hoped to leave to her great-grandchildren “the dead sea.”

“I brought my camera,” the retired veterinary worker said. “But I can’t seem to take a picture.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske, from Pensacola Beach, Fla

Photo: Workers toil by night to clear tar from Pensacola Beach, Fla. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (7)

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Tar balls? I live in Gulf Breeze, aka, Pensacola Beach, and the water is obviously toxic. The pollutants go well beyond tar balls. And the oil has covered the beach like a thick blanket at times.The water is not clear and is bubbling at the sand bar breaks and shore line like acid. The National Seashore rangers just 2 miles down the road are providing notices of the toxicity of the water and advising swimmers to enter at their own risk. Mr Florek, you obviously watch too many Deliverance scenes. My biggest problem at the moment is that the rest of the country is uninformed about the realities of the Gulf Coast disaster. Both the Federal government and BP are running this show and providing bits of information that downplay the severity. I am blogging like crazy to send out an SOS to the rest of the world. Please help us!

The reality is that these tar balls are going to be part of the beach landscape for some time to come. It will get to the point that beaches will be rated on their "tar ball content". Beaches will need to subcontract to cleaning crews to keep the tar ball content under control. Will this be the responsibility of BP and how long will BP be on the hook for this?

I can't believe the parents are letting their kids go in the water!! That is completely insane! Please forgive me if I cry, "Child abuse!". But it is. When you know the water is full of oil and toxic chemicals, why the hell would you let your child swim in that?? Unbelievable! Hopefully the children don't get sick... or worse. If they end up with leukemia in a few years, they'll have MAMA to thank. Sick. Just sick.

Going to any beach with oil on it is like chewing razor blades! The oil is loaded with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) . The introduction of chemical dispersants increases the amount of carcinogens in the oil. The federal government should be passing out Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) . They are designed to provide both workers and emergency personnel or people on the beach picking up or walking on tar balls with the proper procedures for handling hazardous material. The oil is a toxic material.

Some people who have breathed or touched mixtures of PAHs and other chemicals for long periods of time have developed cancer. Some PAHs have caused cancer in laboratory animals when they breathed air containing them (lung cancer), ingested them in food (stomach cancer), or had them applied to their skin (skin cancer).

We know this from an oil spill eight years ago in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. On April 27, 2003, eight years ago the Bouchard Barge B-120 hit an obstacle in Buzzards Bay, creating a 12-foot rupture in its hull and discharging an estimated 100,000 gallons of No. 6 oil. The oil is known to have affected an estimated 90 miles of shoreline, numerous bird species, and recreational use of the bay, such as shell fishing and boating.

So, now old school deep south mentality starts to kick in again, after all these years, when local sheriff and police officers follow directives by who? B.P.? Wait! Who are the authorities? B.P.? B.P.'s the new government? Huh? B.P. has local southern municipalties so enamored that they follow orders authored by who? B.P.? Huh?

This article is so sad. I don't understand why people still want to drill for oil offshore with what's at stake. We can do without cars, we might have to someday. Just leave the oil for essential things like pumping and treating water and start investing in alternative energy and mass transportation for all. It sounds severe, but if it's the choice for survival for the natural world, it needs to be done.

Since when does the United States negotiate on equal footing with foreign criminals? 20BB is not enough. I resent how British Petroleum framed this as a problem between equals, saying the US is a great country, BP is a great company, etc. Since when do we in the USA allow a foreign corporation to control media access to a disaster site on US soil, as per this NY times article.
For that matter, need we be surprised that a company like BP, or any big bank for that matter, withholds information, hides the truth, and lies? In communist China during the “Great Leap Forward”, lower level cadres seeking to please upper echelons were incentivized to please Mao by hiding truths, by lying about food production, and other economic output, eventually causing famines. In the present day West, we centralized control and collectivized to the point that we have now come full circle, duplicating the earlier Chinese experience. The parasitic financial class in London and New York have sucked the air out of the economies of both sides of the ocean.


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