Special Reports

In Panhandle, cleanup to become way of life?

PENSACOLA BEACH — A day after this pristine seashore was walloped with oil, most of the sticky crude was gone from its beaches — either cleaned up, buried or swept back into the sea.

But the question remained: How could miles of gooey mess have slipped past the ocean skimmers onto the shore?

The answer: Easily.

Although state officials say there are about 20 skimming vessels working night and day straining matted and weathered oil from the sea, there are too few of them to cover much of the vast Gulf, and the effort is more art than science.

“It’s almost like beating a grizzly bear with a hickory stick,” said charter boat Capt. Paul Redman Jr., who has been battling the oil on his “vessel of opportunity” — the label for private boats serving in the cleanup — for about three weeks. “You’re going to fight till you can’t fight no more. No one wants to give up.”

The failure to stop the oil from hitting shore has frustrated area residents and raised questions about the effectiveness of the cleanup effort. But it has also brought home the point that there is no way to protect the 50-plus miles of Panhandle coastline now vulnerable to the oil.

“I don’t care how much you prepare. When you have as much junk as there is out in the Gulf, the ability to stop it from ever coming in is almost impossible,” said Grover Robinson IV, the chairman of the Escambia County Commission. “And the costs of trying to boom it all and contain it would be astronomical.”

He expects that Wednesday won’t be the last time coastal residents wake up with their beaches covered in oil. Cleanup may become a way of life.

The realities:

n Even if the state had enough boom to line the shoreline, it wouldn’t protect the most active beaches, where the current just tears it up. So state and local officials save the boom for the most sensitive areas, placing 682,600 feet of it along inland shorelines and marshes but refraining from placing it near the tide.

n When oil reaches shore, it can be cleaned from sand, but the hotter the day, the more difficult it is to scoop up. The longer it sits, the greater the chance it washes back out with the tide — or sinks into the sand.

And sink it does: On Thursday, a University of South Florida geologist dug a narrow trench perpendicular to the shoreline, about a foot deep, and found a dark, contiguous vein of oil about six inches beneath the surface of the sand.

The sheet of oil was covered by as much as a foot of sand at high tide, said the geologist, Ping Wang. The discovery means the oil under the sand will be that much harder to clean up.

n Skimming boats can get a lot of oil out of the water, but spotting the oil mats can be difficult — nearly impossible at night — and vulnerable to shifts in the current.

Like Alabama to the west and coastal counties to the east, Escambia has a three-part protection system that begins with skimmers that attempt to suck up the oil at sea, booms that fortify the passes that lead to sensitive inland estuaries, and efforts to scoop up the oil and tar when it reaches the sandy shoreline.

Protecting the estuaries and marshlands has been given the priority because ‘‘the oil on the beach is terrible, but you can clean it,” said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., near the state line. “It may take time. You can dredge sand, bring new sand in, but when it gets in estuaries it wipes out all the nurseries and the hatcheries.”

Robinson and his colleagues on the Escambia County Commission have joined other state and local officials who have intensified their call for more skimmers.

“There should be an armada of skimmers off the coast of Florida,” said U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican. “Our problem should be that there are so many skimmers in the Gulf of Mexico, they bump into each other.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, said Thursday that he has won approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the red tape and send 27 U.S. Navy skimmers to the Gulf, with six of them deployed immediately. He wants a commitment for as many as 40 more.

But Robinson is practical. “Even when you post the numbers, 30, 40 ships sounds like a lot, but when you see it in the Gulf it’s nothing ... The Gulf is huge.”

Every day Escambia County, assisted by the National Guard’s civil air patrol, sends out airplanes and helicopters looking for oil and then signals to boats where to intercept and remove it. But on Tuesday night, with no aerial surveillance, the oil rolled in at high tide and the best efforts were futile.

Redman, the charter boat captain, said that spotting the pumpkin-orange chunks of oil is unpredictable.

“It seems to come out of nowhere,” he said. “We have several boats in the area. All of a sudden 10 or 12 blobs pop up.”

On Pensacola Beach Thursday morning, most signs of the oil blankets that coated the crystaline beach a day earlier were gone. Thick tar balls ranging from the size of a quarter to a fist sat along the tide line.

About 500 people worked overnight into Thursday morning shoveling up the oil-matted sand. The cleanup continued under the hot day’s sun, with officials reporting that 1,300 people would fan out across the county, hitting the long stretches of white-sand beaches. Heavy equipment also was brought in, to lift away large patches of the spoiled sand, but the rakes and sifters that the county wanted to use were a poor match against the gooey oil.

What remained was carried away in the surf, or buried in new sand, Robinson said, magnifying the cleanup effort.

“Once it connects with sand, it’s no longer buoyant and it sinks to the bottom,” he said.

To clean it up, he said, they will need people with snorkels and nets scooping it up by hand.

“That’s perhaps the most frustrating thing.”