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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Oil Sightings, Beach Closings Edge East into Florida Panhandle

Miami Herald

Pie-sized tar patties washed up on Okaloosa County shores, some of the most pristine in Florida, beaching swimmers in some spots as splotches of BP's weathered oil spill edged east along the Florida Panhandle Thursday.

Okaloosa County's health department advised swimmers on Wednesday afternoon to keep out of the water off Okaloosa Island, a stretch of beaches on the outskirts of Destin.

But Thursday morning a dozen tourists were wading the warm waters along Okaloosa Island's Beasley Park, despite a lifeguard shouting a warning as they approached the shore.

``I've worked around oil in the past as a mechanic and far more worse stuff has stuck to me than this,'' said Randy Morris, 53, of Adams, Tenn., who was on a family vacation.

Morris pointed to visible black tar balls below the clear ankle-deep water and declared, ``Except for little black specks it seems safe to me.''

Nearby, a Fort Walton Beach family of five likewise defied warnings to leave the oil pollution to trained workers with father James Williams, 32, declaring, ``Until it gets worse we'll keep coming back.''

His daughter scooped up tar balls with a pink plastic shovel and put them in a plastic bag.

Santa Rosa County officials reported air reconnaissance spotted a trail of oil sheen and patties five miles south of Fort Walton. But beaches remained open for swimming and fishing on Thursday morning.

BP crews were instructed to start cleanup efforts along Santa Rosa's Navarre Beach, according to a county update. In Escambia County, closest to Mississippi, night-time cleaning began on Wednesday and workers were expanding their patch on Thursday.

Conditions are better for night cleaning. The sweltering summer sun melts tar balls, making them harder to collect, and is harder on workers in plastic jumpsuits and gloves.

In other developments Thursday:

• Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said officials were monitoring a tropical depression west of the Gulf of Mexico in the Pacific, as well as weather off the coast of Africa. In the event of a hurricane, workers would have to stop spill recovery efforts days before -- letting the crude spill freely into the Gulf, spread by the winds -- and it would take days to resume the cleanup once hurricane winds dissipated.

Just before noon, the National Hurricane Center in Miami declared the depression Tropical Storm Blas, and said it was slow moving.

• The federal government said the NOAA Ship Pisces on Tuesday spotted a dead young sperm whale floating 77 miles south of the Deepwater Horizon spill site. It was not found in oily waters, and the location and cause of death were not known. But it was the first dead whale reported since the BP rig exploded on April 20. An analysis was planned on carcass samples stored on the ship once the boat comes to port in two weeks, a Deepwater Horizon response release said.

• Allen said at a morning news briefing that there have been days during the 59-day environmental crisis when crews collected more oil than was spewed from the well on that given day. He could not quantify it, and said part of the problem in measuring progress is there is still no agreement on the discharge rate.

• In Washington, Congress convened its first hearing with BP CEO Tony Hayward -- an event being carried live on cable news channels juxtaposed with images of burning oil atop the Gulf and underwater views of the still spewing well. A grim-faced Hayward, who earlier in the crisis had complained ``I want my life back,'' issued an apology for the spill and declared himself ``personally devastated'' by it.

 A week ago, globs of oil reached Pensacola's Perdido Pass, and cleanup efforts have been concentrated on the western end of the Panhandle.

But sightings increased over the weekend from Santa Rosa County east to Bay County, home to spring break mecca Panama City Beach.

With more oil expected throughout the weekend, Okaloosa's public safety director, Dino Villani, said the county has a plan in place to line up barges across Destin's East Pass waterway to close off the area to boaters and secure boom to capture the oil slicks.

Villani said the past two days have brought some of the largest sightings to date, describing some of the tar patties washing ashore as the size of ``pies.''

Saturday, two metal marine holding tanks, weighing 5,000 pounds each, washed ashore in Walton County and farther east into Bay County. The two tanks had placards with the BP logo and the words ``HORIZ'' written on the side. They are believed to remnants of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig, some 300 miles from Bay County. They have since been shipped to New Orleans, where the oil rig explosion is being investigated.

Then Wednesday, nearly 100 tar balls washed ashore on Okaloosa Island, the biggest sighting to date, and Santa Rosa County officials also reported seeing tar patties larger than the dime and quarter-size pieces that had been previously scooped up.

As tourists and locals fished from atop the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier Wednesday afternoon, streams of oil sheen speckled by floating tar patties floated along the emerald green waters. Some fishermen complained that kingfish,often caught in the area, were just not biting.