Special Reports

Oil seeps past skimmers into Pensacola's inland waterways

PENSACOLA -- Brown gooey oil slopped into the Perdido and Pensacola passes Thursday, the first confirmed invasion of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster into Florida's inland waterways.

It could be plainly seen on the Alabama side of the Perdido Pass, where workers scraped it from a boat ramp near bright yellow boom. And in Escambia County, spokeswoman Sonya Daniel said it seeped into the next waterway inside Florida, the Pensacola Pass, as well.

``With the incoming tide, evidentially overnight, there's some sargassum grass with oil intermixed,'' Daniel reported at 1 p.m. Thursday. ``The Coast Guard has a skimmer out there along with some smaller vessels, actively skimming in the Pensacola Pass right now.''

In Washington, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the federal official coordinating the oil spill relief effort, told reporters that marine protection measures had adopted an open-close strategy to try to stem the flow into Perdido Pass -- an intracoastal waterway straddling the Florida-Alabama border.

As the water ebbs, he said, vessels would be allowed to leave through Perdido Pass into the Gulf. As it flows, vessel traffic would be prohibited. The Coast Guard first employed that system Wednesday night.

``There's no 100 percent guarantee that the oil won't get through,'' Allen counseled, reporting, ``there are very strong currents at the ebb and the flow.''

In addition, he said Escambia County had deployed ``a fairly robust booming system.''

Still, at a boat launch on Alabama's side of Perdido Pass,two Miami Herald journalists could plainly see brown oil slopped against the side of bright yellow boom. Some six workers in orange life jackets and green gloves dipped nets into the water, scooping up large blobs of thick goo.

The men, in waders to the waist, filled large plastic bags with the oil and pieces of plastic used to help catch it.

A mound of about 50 plastic bags, tied off with duct tape, sat not far from where the men worked.

Alabaman Harry Haas, 60, of Orange Beach saw pictures of the oil on the news and wanted to see for himself.

``It's depressing, it's frustrating,'' he said. ``BP won't listen to common sense solutions.''

His proposal: Employ more oil absorbant booms along the Gulf to suck up the crude. ``It's very depressing when you live here,'' he said. ``They're shutting our economy down.''

In Florida, the first sign of a sheen from the oil pollution crept toward Perdido Pass Wednesday night, according to a 9:45 p.m. report from Escambia County's Emergency Operations Center, coming perilously close to invading the environmentally sensitive wetland feeding the intracoastal.

A Coast Guard commander in charge of the area ordered the waterway closed, for the first time, at 5:30 p.m., Escambia County's Daniel said. She described the mood in the county as ``concerned,'' along with deliberation. ``We're trying to figure out what the next is.''

Word swept through the coastal community, as did a call to the public to not pick up tar or oily debris and instead report findings to 1-866-448-5816 or #DEP from a cellphone.

Thursday morning, the coastal defense teams constituted 20 skimmers in the Pensacola area, of which about a half-dozen vessels and two shrimp boats could be spotted from the shore. Another 21 boats were on the job laying and repositioning boom, said Petty Officer 1st Class Tasha Tully, reporting that skimmers had worked night and day along Perdido.

Meantime, the first cleanup crews -- nearly 40 men in florescent yellow vests -- arrived at the beach just after 9 a.m.

The Perdido and Pensacola passes are the first two inland waterways inside Florida along the Panhandle. As the plume wafts east, the next seepage point would be at Destin, also known for its blindingly white beaches, some 40 miles more down the coastline in Okaloosa County.

Tar ball sighting have been few and far in between along Destin's beaches, but the seepage in Pensacola's Escambia county lent to a sense of frustration there that state and federal officials weren't working fast enough to get skimmers and boom to neighboring panhandle coastal counties.

``The bureaucratic process is an abomination,'' said Dino Villani, public safety director for Okaloosa County. ``It's very alarming now with the amount of oil coming into Perdido Pass. It's not the time to be slowed down by a bureaucratic process that is not working.''

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