PENSACOLA BEACH — The worst blow yet to the Florida coastline from the growing oil spill struck Wednesday in an eight-mile line of thick, sticky goo that stained the pristine sands of this Panhandle community.
Workers spent the day raking up the chocolate-brown oil mats and tar patches that washed ashore, and the state ordered road graders to lift the gunk from the once-white beaches.
Some local leaders complained it was too little too late.
“It’s pitiful,” said Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Island Authority. “It took us four hours to clean up 50 to 60 feet of beach and I don’t see this stopping for a while.”
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He urged Gov. Charlie Crist, who toured the area by helicopter Wednesday, to demand that the Coast Guard’s unified command center in Mobile, Ala., dispatch front-end loaders and heavy-duty equipment to scoop up the tar mats before the brown goo sinks into the sand.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole then ordered the machines to the scene.
“It’s worse than I expected,” he said.
Cleanup workers in the area were kept busy, clearing 8 tons of oil waste off a Perdido Key barrier island. By Wednesday morning, a three-mile-long trail of the oily slick had washed up between the Pensacola Beach pier and Fort Pickens National Park.
In addition, the county spotted several solid masses of 8-by-10-foot weathered oil waste in the Pensacola Pass. It was contained and a skimmer was on site, said Kelly Cooke, Escambia County’s public information officer.
Crist visited the Pensacola Beach pier after taking an aerial tour Wednesday morning with Coast Guard officials and environmental consultants. A week ago, Crist walked along the same beach with President Barack Obama as they discussed the federal response to the cleanup effort.
This time, Crist was greeted by dozens of cleanup workers, dressed in white hazmat suits and yellow boots, carrying rakes and shovels and plastic bags as they scooped up the mousse-like tar mats.
“It’s pretty ugly. There’s no question about it,” said Crist, who arrived at the beach expecting to see tar balls, not pools of sticky goo. “We don’t want to take ‘the sky is falling’ attitude about this. We want to clean it up and stay after it and stay after it and we will.”
Despite a faint odor from the oil, a couple of dozen sunbathers watched as workers snaked along the sand with their shovels and rakes, occasionally resting under tents to sip water.
The Escambia County Health Department sent out a health advisory Wednesday warning beachgoers not to swim or wade in the oily water, avoid contact with the sand or sediment and stay away from dead fish and sea life. The region remains closed to fishing.
Earlier in the morning, Crist took an aerial tour of Perdido Bay and the shoreline with Sole, U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Boudrow; Florida National Guard Gen. Douglas Burnett; Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy and former Alaska commissioner of environmental conservation during the Exxon Valdez oil crisis; and environmental activist Phillipe Cousteau.
From the Blackhawk helicopter carrying the governor, orange ribbons of oil could be seen four miles from Pensacola Beach and mats of it dotted the water, like a field of misfired fluorescent Frisbees on a vast field of green.
Crist and company said they were heartened by the appearance of several skimming boats, some carrying booms to collect the water, and by the dozens of workers in green and orange T-shirts working to clean up tar balls from Perdido Bay beaches.
But their mood changed when the helicopter landed on Pensacola Beach and local residents rushed to them to say it had taken three to four hours to clean the thicker mats from a 60-foot stretch of beach.
“I didn’t think it was going to be quite like this on the beach,” Cousteau said. “We saw tar balls on the beach a few weeks ago. I expected that here. But it looks like it’s thicker, more viscous. I saw this in Grand Isle [Louisiana] three weeks ago.”
He said he was encouraged that, as the oil arrived, so did the cleanup crews. “But this is something that people need to realize is a very serious situation and that Florida is not exempt from the crisis.”
Takahashi-Kelso, the former Alaska official, said experience taught him crews must move fast if cleanup of the toxic mousse is going to be effective.
“The time to be able to get it off the surface is right away before it really gets set in,” he said. “And this is the incredible, Florida powdery beach and the two don’t go together very well.”
Takahashi-Kelso urged Crist and Sole to start assessing the damage to the state’s natural resources, and get BP to pay for it up front. He said that Alaska had its best success by layering so-called skirt boom around its sensitive areas, lining it with absorbent boom and then having the remaining oil collected by skimmers.
“That combination literally kept the oil out but we didn’t have enough skimmers,” he said.
Sole said the state has independently found five large skimmers, is using 30 near-shore skimmers and has six more on the way.
Crist called Wednesday’s mess “the worst I’ve seen,” but was sanguine about the future. “It’s one of the realities we’re going to have to deal with,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with and continue to ask for additional assets and additional help.”