Special Reports

Oil taints Florida beaches (with photo galleries)

PENSACOLA — The sandy white beaches known to attract droves of tourists to Florida’s Gulf Coast morphed into a light brown Saturday as tides brought hundreds of tar balls, stained sea shells and oil-soaked birds to the region’s westernmost shores and officials estimated that winds would push oil east along the Panhandle through the weekend.

The picture stunned tourists and locals alike but nonetheless did not keep them from coming to see what many hope is a once-in-a-lifetime sight, while almost 200 miles away, a containment cap that British Petroleum has placed over its gushing underwater disaster continued to slowly increase the oil it’s collecting to a surface ship.

BP’s cap, initially put into place Thursday, collected 6,077 barrels of oil in its first full day, said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the disaster.

Official estimates estimate a minimum of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil are spewing underwater each day, but some scientists say the number could be substantially higher.

A light oil sheen, about 100 yards by 3 miles wide, was seen about a half-mile from Pensacola Beach, where beachgoers gathered carrying cameras, shovels and plastic bags to hunt for tar balls that have been splattering ashore since Friday. On Saturday, officials also reported tar balls at Perdido Key, east of Pensacola Beach.

Despite concerns over tar balls and oil sheens, officials from the Department of Environmental Protection said beaches, the jewel of Florida’s tourism industry, will remain open and occasional contact with small amounts of oil won’t harm beachgoers.

Gov. Charlie Crist toured the Pensacola shoreline Saturday with singer Jimmy Buffett, whose Margaritaville hotel is supposed to open June 24 in the area, and said he would continue to ask for more oil-containment booms to keep the spill off Florida’s shore.

But when asked at a news conference if the answer was to place more booms to protect beaches, Allen said the solution was not so simple.

“The hardest place to pick up oil is a marsh or a wetland. The easiest place to remove oil is a sandy beach,” Allen said. About 400 BP workers were spread along the Pensacola Beach area for cleanup efforts Saturday.

Appearing on Pensacola Beach, Florida Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican, blasted the federal government and BP’s response, and said the state needed more help.

“I want to see the President of the United States here in Escambia County,” LeMieux said, later adding that “we have to keep the oil from leaking first and do everything we can to keep more from coming ashore. ... We need more skimmers down here. ... What we need to see out of British Petroleum is more money.”

Scientists say it’s only a matter of time before the relentless crude washes into the powerful loop current that will pull it from the gulf through the Florida Straits and up the East Coast.

In his Saturday radio address, President Barack Obama responded to criticisms of the government’s reaction to the spill, saying his administration’s response has been the largest to any environmental disaster in U.S. history.

“This spill has not just damaged livelihoods. It’s upended whole communities,” Obama said. “And the fury people feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. They’ve been through tough times before. It’s about the wrenching recognition that this time their lives may never be the same.”

As pressure continued to mount on BP, it announced that it would double its payments in June to individuals and businesses along the Gulf Coast who have filed claims to compensate for the loss of income because of the spill. BP said it will have spent a total of $84 million on claims through the month.

But Obama has slammed BP for spending $50 million on television advertising to manage its image and planning to pay out $10 billion in dividends to shareholders this quarter.

“We are prepared for the worst, even as we hope that BP’s efforts bring better news than we’ve received before. We also know that regardless of the outcome of this attempt, there will still to be some spillage until the relief wells are completed. And there will continue to be a massive cleanup ahead of us,” the president said in his Saturday address.

Somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the rig exploded, according to government estimates. Eleven workers were killed in the April 20 blast on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

The brunt of the spill has devastated southern Louisiana, where oil has slicked or killed dozens of pelicans. It has also ravaged marshland and crippled the state’s fishing industry. Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the southeastern region that includes Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, said several dead birds had been found along the Panhandle. A few others were at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Pensacola. Some of them had been visibly oiled, he said.

“It’s not a huge influx at this point,” MacKenzie said, adding that the agency is also worried about turtles.

But the oil balls didn’t deter tourists.

“We’ve already seen plenty of them,” said Tim Backues, of Missouri, who stopped to see the sunrise Saturday morning with his family on their way to vacation in Panama City and instead found tar balls. Said his wife, Amiee: “It’s disgusting.”

Allen said the federal government is trying to keep cleanup resources like oil-skimming boats and boom along Gulf Coast states that have been clamoring for more help. On Saturday, Crist said Allen promised up to 20 more boats to skim oil off Florida waters.

“We are adjusting the resources the best way we can and trying to be as responsive to local officials as possible,” Allen said. “It’s all hands on deck.”