Special Reports

Tar balls found in Key West, stoking fears (with video and photo galleries)

KEY WEST — Park rangers found dozens of tar balls from the Dry Tortugas to Big Pine Key and a new computer model forecast black oil ringing the Florida peninsula next week, stoking fears Tuesday for the state’s tourism industry that fallout from the massive BP oil spill had reached the Sunshine State.

The Coast Guard urged calm, saying it would not be known until later this week whether the 50 3- to 8-inch flattened tar balls found Monday and Tuesday were from the Gulf of Mexico disaster or perhaps oil remnants from a passing ship.

“The public is reminded that tar balls are a hazardous material and should only be retrieved by trained personnel,” a Coast Guard statement also warned. “The beaches on the Florida Keys remain open at this time.”

The discoveries stirred many concerns. For the environment, should the oil waste reach the Keys’ precious mangroves. For the Florida economy — both its tourism and fishing industry, after federal authorities imposed a fishing ban in 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico.

And then for Florida’s east coast, once U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., released fresh research predicting traces of Deepwater Horizon’s slick reaching the Keys by weekend and the Miami area sometime next week.

The study was conducted by the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, and included a tracking map that graphically showed a black oil slick encircling the Florida peninsula in 10 days.

“While I always hope for the best,” Nelson said in a statement, “this is looking like really out-of-control bad.”

A tar ball count that started at 20 on Tuesday morning rose to “approximately 50” by day’s end, according to Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo in Miami.

The news Tuesday morning sent environmentalists to the Keys’ shores.

Maya Totman of the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, searching mangroves in Big Pine Key, said she feared a mixture of oil and debris could cause “a deadly mix that will threaten all the fish and wildlife of the Florida Keys.”

Fear also straddled the Florida Straits, spawning another channel of communication between the Cuban government and the Obama administration.

Cuba called U.S. oceanographers last week and sought help, the State Department revealed on Tuesday, on how Havana might prepare for any oil spill waste that could threaten the most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean, thick mangroves and nesting areas for green sea turtles.

Since then, the two sides have engaged in a “low, technical level” of talks, a State Department official said, focused on environmental cooperation akin to earlier hurricane collaborations.

In Miami, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said he had assigned a team to assess the damage “for potential down-the-road civil or criminal prosecutions.”

But in Key West, the reports didn’t appear to dampen the enthusiasm of Italian tourist Riccardo Nocentini, 27, a doctoral student from Florence on vacation with his girlfriend.

“We’ve been snorkeling the whole day. It’s been great,” he reported. State tourism officials sought to downplay the discovery, noting that all state tourist attractions were still open for business, the beaches included.

As if to reassure, a statement from Tallahassee noted that just last year there were 681 reports of “oil and petroleum incidents along Florida’s waterways and beaches,” advising “these types of occurrences are not as unusual as one might think.”

In Washington, the fishing industry was also a concern. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association was expanding its fishery closure to cover 19 percent of the Gulf, or 45,728 square miles.

Lubchenco said there was no imminent threat to Florida. The bulk of the slick remains “dozens of miles” north of the loop current that could drag it south then east, she said, with a long tendril of “light oil” sucked in by an eddy swirling from the main current.

So the drag would dilute the mass ooze off Louisiana and turn up on the Florida Keys as tar balls or strings. Or it could emulsify the oil to the consistency of mayonnaise that, she said, might never make landfall.

Coast Guard pollution-control experts retrieved the first 20 tar balls found on Monday and sent samples from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West to their lab in Groton, Conn., for analysis.

Tuesday they were called to three new Keys sites where tar balls were collected: Big Pine Key, Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas and Smathers Beach.

In response, keys environmentalists put out a call to volunteers to sign up for a section of the shoreline and clean up debris through the Green Living Energy Education nonprofit.

Volunteers are trained to not touch any hazardous materials — tar balls chief among them — and alert authorities while clearing out more typical shoreline litter.

Miami Herald staff writers Tim Chapman, Cammy Clark, Lesley Clark, Douglas Hanks, Kenny Malone and Curtis Morgan contributed to this report.

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