Oil could hit Florida Panhandle by Wednesday

Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By Paul Martin

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — A Florida beach might get hit with oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident for the first time Wednesday as sheen likely caused by the accident was reported less than 10 miles off Pensacola Beach.

A charter boat captain reported the oil Tuesday afternoon and state and local environmental officials confirmed that it was about 9.5 miles offshore. Winds are forecast to blow from the south and west, pushing the outer edges of massive slick from the spill closer to western Panhandle beaches.

Emergency crews began Tuesday scouring the beaches for oil and shoring up miles of boom. Escambia County will use it to block oil from reaching inland waterways, but plans to leave beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to protect and easier to clean up.

The spill’s arrival coincides with the beginning of the Panhandle’s summer tourism season, which normally brings millions of dollars to the region.

“It’s inevitable that we will see it on the beaches,” said Keith Wilkins, Escambia’s deputy chief of neighborhood and community services.

The oil has been creeping toward Florida since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and eventually collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 20 million to 40 million gallons of oil has spewed into the Gulf, eclipsing the 11 million that leaked from the Exxon Valdez disaster. The rig was being operated for petroleum giant BP, which has tried unsuccessfully for six week to stanch the oil.

The Florida report followed an orange and oily mess washing up on Alabama’s beaches earlier Tuesday. Crews cleaned up the oil that they described as having the consistency of a “tarry mousse,” but health officials closed the beaches to swimming.

Pensacola Beach officials said their request for about $150,000 from BP to buy sifting machines and a tractor to help remove oil from the beach’s famous white sands has lingered unanswered for more than three weeks. BP has promised it will pay any expenses, but Panhandle officials say the bureaucracy has been slow. Some think the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be running the cleanup operation, not BP.

“We need the sifters and we haven’t gotten them approved yet,” said W.A. “Buck” Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority’s executive director. “It’s been three weeks and the oil is coming. In my opinion, this entire thing should have been a FEMA project all along. If a hurricane blows the roof off your jail, you shouldn’t have to wait and send a letter to BP to replace the roof on your jail.”

Lee said BP has spent money on public relations, but not on preparations for beach cleanup. The company has provided the sate with $25 million to promote tourism. Escambia approved $700,000 in emergency funding for tourism promotion Tuesday, with another $700,000 to be allocated in 45 days.

Lee said the bureaucratic process set up at the federal staging centers in Alabama and Louisiana have also made it difficult to get information about his pending request.

Coast Guard Chief Peter Capelotti, spokesman for the Mobile, Ala.-based command center, did not have an immediate answer late Tuesday about the delay in approving Escambia county’s request for the tractor and other equipment.

Capelotti said command center officials expect more oil to make landfall in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle through Friday.

On Pensacola Beach, emergency crews are prepared for a long summer of oil clean up. They plan to remove oil in cycles after it is pushed onshore and the winds shift. Removing oil while it’s moving onshore doesn’t make sense, Wilkins said.

“It would be like trying to go out and clean up in the middle of a hurricane,” he said. “We will wait until after the bands make their way onshore and the weather shifts and then we will clean up before the next band hits.”

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