Special Reports

Oil seeping into Florida waterways

PENSACOLA — On the day the Obama administration doubled its minimum estimate of how much crude oil was gushing from the Deepwater Horizon oil well, brown gooey oil slopped into the Perdido Pass and an oil sheen burst through a boom system protecting the Pensacola Pass on Thursday, the first confirmed invasion of oil into Florida’s fragile inland waterways.

Oil 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 the incoming overnight tide left oil intermixed with sargassum grass in the first major intracoastal of Florida at Pensacola Pass, said spokeswoman Sonya Daniel.

Six boats were skimming oil in the pass, with five more monitoring the water.

“I’m watching the oil come in, I’ve seen it on the beach. It’s in the seaweed. I cry,” said Dorothy King, 65, moments before a community meeting Thursday night at Perdido Bay Community Center.

“For the animals, for the rest of my life it won’t be the same,” added King, who splits her time between homes in Perdido Key and Pensacola. “I’m mad at BP.”

The county deployed booms to protect 17 separate individual inlets from bayous and coves where the seagrass is especially sensitive. But King noted mournfully that “they said a month ago our seas were too rough for the boom.”

About 150 people were attending the meeting for a briefing by representatives of the Coast Guard and BP, which were in their 52nd day fighting an ever widening spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Perdido Pass is the gateway to the first waterways straddling the Alabama-Florida border and, in Washington, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the chief marine protection measure there was an open-close strategy to stem the flow.

As the water ebbs, he said, vessels would be allowed to leave through Perdido Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. As it flows, vessel traffic would be prohibited, which is precisely what happened when the Coast Guard slammed shut the pass to boat traffic on Wednesday night.

“There’s no 100 percent guarantee that the oil won’t get through,” Allen said. “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 in Alabama on the western side of Perdido Pass, two Miami Herald journalists could plainly see brown oil slopped against the side of bright yellow boom. 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 absorbent 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.”

Escambia County placed signs on six miles of beach between the Alabama state line and the Gulf Islands Seashore National Park, warning beachgoers not to swim or fish in the oiled waters.

Tar balls and mousse, a brown pudding-like substance, have been appearing on some Pensacola beaches with the tides for days, at times collected by contract workers skilled in handling hazardous material.

As for the oil flow estimate, the Obama administration said a panel of scientists had concluded that 25,000 to 50,000 barrels, or as much as 2.1 million gallons, were pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day before BP sheared the well’s riser pipe on June 3.

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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 Coast Guard 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.

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But the appearance of the goo and sheen in Perdido and Pensacola passes marked the first entry at inland waterways. 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.

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Escambia’s experience 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.”

In Washington, Allen said he was aware of the frustration. But he said the government has implemented a National Contingency Plan under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to respond to the spill, a scheme that puts the burden on the business that spills the oil to contract clean up — with the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for supervision.

But the plan did not envision the scale of Deepwater Horizon’s disaster — more than 1 million barrels spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the most conservative estimates.

“We have since gone way over the top on that in terms of resources, command and control and the amount of personnel that we’re bringing to this fight,” Allen said. “The spill has grown in magnitude far beyond, geographically, from what was anticipated in any planning scenario from Louisiana clear over to the Panhandle of Florida.”

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(Lebovich reported from both Alabama’s western side of the Perdido Pass and in the Florida Panhandle. Rosenberg reported from Miami. Staff writer Laura Figueroa contributed to this report from Destin.)

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(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): OILSPILL

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