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Florida prepares for oil spill; BP exec says Gulf `will recover'

As Louisiana copes with the colossal Gulf of Mexico oil blob lapping its shores and marshlands, Florida authorities and residents on Friday were watching and waiting and planning for the worst.

For now, the state's 1,260 miles of coastline remain untouched by the massive oil spill, state officials said, even as South Florida coastal communities continued their containment and cleanup preparations.

On Friday morning, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, who is in charge of fighting the spill, told the CBS ``Early Show'' that in the worst case scenario, the gusher could continue until early August, when one of two new relief wells would be completed to cap the flow permanently.

He also said that he believes the rich Gulf environment will recover, in part because it is a large body of water and has withstood other oil spills.

``I'm optimistic, I'm very optimistic that the Gulf will fully recover,'' Suttles said on CBS.

In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was to meet Friday afternoon with local business owners, government officials and civic leaders in Panama City about the oil spill's impact.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist has extended his state of emergency to all of South Florida and an uneasy agricultural commissioner got approval from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to start Apalachicola Bay's summer oyster harvest early, at sunrise Friday.

Florida seafood is still safe, said Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson, whose measure is meant to let oystermen harvest in the Panhandle before any oil waste reaches the shoreline.

``With demand for safe Gulf oysters at a peak,'' he said in a statement,``opening the summer harvesting area a little early will benefit both our oyster industry and consumers alike.''

Crist's expanded state of emergency zone for the first time put South Florida in the official target zone for the leak that has threatened the Sunshine State for a month. It also made governments from Key West to West Palm Beach eligible for state help should the oil arrive.

``As the oil continues to spill from the well and all efforts to stop the discharge have failed and may not succeed for an extended period of time, more Florida counties could be affected,'' Crist wrote in the order.

In Broward, emergency services workers and administrators from the county's coastal communities met with Coast Guard planners Thursday at a Hollywood fire station to begin mapping out a strategy should the oil pollution reach the county's shores.

Of concern was the mistaken image of a Florida already awash in oil and tar balls spawned by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, despite a Coast Guard lab finding that some 50 tar balls found on four beaches in the Lower Keys Monday and Tuesday proved not to be from the Gulf.

``The problem is perception. We find one tar ball and panic sets in,'' said Chuck Lanza, Broward's emergency management director.

It was still unknown when -- or even if -- contaminated oil from the spill might reach Florida's shores.

Meantime, vacationers in Key West continued to revel in the so-far spill-waste-free paradise.

``It's been great,'' St. Petersburg resident Meghan Bingham, 25, said at the Duval Street Starbucks.

``The oil didn't stop me from partying. Everything's beautiful. Unfortunately, we have to leave tonight.''

Thursday's Florida state advisory echoed earlier assessments that wind and current continue to keep the plume away from the Florida coast for at least the next 72 hours.

The oil itself is a concern for the Sunshine State's fragile ecology, as well as the prospect of tar balls or slicks on the shores. Also worrisome has been the toxicity of the chemical dispersants that oil giant BP has shot into the spill, a concern that the Environmental Protection Agency began to address Thursday.

The EPA said in a statement it directed BP to use a less toxic form of dispersants, which shoot chemicals thousands of feet beneath the sea in a bid to break up the oil and keep it from reaching the surface.

Meantime, Key West environmentalists redoubled efforts to organize coastal cleanups to clear the shores of litter that, if mixed with contaminated oil, could become toxic along the 120-mile string of islands that stretch south of Miami, part of a fragile interdependent ecosystem of mangroves and sea grass.

``Preemptively removing artificial debris from the shoreline of the preserve will reduce potential impacts from oil, and it is good for the environment in any event,'' a Nature Conservancy of Florida statement said, asking volunteers with kayaks and canoes to help clean up Little Torch Key on Saturday.

Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark, Douglas Hanks, Kenny Malone and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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