June 3, 2010

Oil Slick Closing In on Florida Beaches

Six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the oil slick is now becoming an increasing threat to Florida Panhandle beaches.

The latest attempt to siphon the oil spewing into the ocean ran into a snag on Wednesday as the saw meant to slice through the pipe got stuck.  It took BP engineers 12 hours to free it.  BP said it hoisted the saw back to the surface after finally yanking it out of the pipe.

Meanwhile, forecasters said the oil would probably wash up on Florida's coast by Friday.  The edge of the slick drifted within seven miles of Pensacola's beaches on Wednesday as emergency workers rushed to link the last in a miles-long chain of booms designed to fend off the oil.

"We are doing what we can do, but we cannot change what has happened," said John Dosh, emergency director for Escambia County, which includes Pensacola.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said more staff, boats and helicopters were sent to the eastern Gulf Coast as the slick spread, including a cutter in Mobile, Alabama and one off Pensacola.  The boats will help skim oil and add more booms to collect it.  Four helicopters would help skimmers spot threatening oil.

The April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and was the start of what the government has called the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.  The well has leaked anywhere between 21 million to 45 million gallons of oil over the past six weeks, according to government estimates. 

As oil made its way closer to Florida's coast, beach goers in Pensacola waded into the gentle waves, cast fishing lines and sunbathed.  Two men there said they were hired by BP to collect water samples to be analyzed for tar and other pollutants.

Officials said the slick seen offshore consists of "tar mats" about 500 feet by 2,000 feet in size.

County officials set up booms to block oil from reaching inland waterways, but planned to leave beaches unprotected because they were too difficult to defend against the action of the waves.

"It's inevitable that we will see it on the beaches," said Keith Wilkins, deputy chief of neighborhood and community services for Escambia County.

Florida's beaches play a crucial part of the state's tourism industry.  About 60 percent of vacation spending in the state during 2008 was in beachfront cities.  State officials are prompting interactive Web maps and Twitter feeds to show travelers how large the state is and how distant their destinations are from the spill.

Image Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley


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