PENSACOLA — As tar balls and oil sheen appeared just 4 miles away from Pensacola's beaches Thursday, the state's top officials demanded oil giant BP pay more money and that the Obama administration pay more attention to the Sunshine State and its thousands of miles of threatened coastline.
Gov. Charlie Crist urged BP to pay the state another $50 million for cleanup efforts and promised to make a plea for more resources today when he meets President Barack Obama in Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill McCollum blasted the administration for recently diverting boom and skimmer boats to other states at Florida's expense. And Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink demanded BP's CEO appear before the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday to explain his plan "to protect Florida's economy and environment."
Much like their Louisiana counterparts, Florida's top elected officials are faced with environmental and economic challenges in coping with the nation's worst environmental disaster. And they realize they can't do it alone.
On Thursday, the state's immediate attention was on the Panhandle, where emergency management officials stepped up methods for keeping the massive oil spill from the state shores.
A shift in winds and currents is expected to send the oil to the Panhandle beaches as early as today, according to forecasters, who said the oil is likely to reach other parts of the state. Satellite images show a narrow band of oil sheen within the Loop Current — the underwater force that could transport the oil to the fragile corridors of the Keys and other parts of the state.
To date, about 257,000 lines of boom have been placed in the most sensitive areas of the Panhandle, while counties in the region plan to put more boom along wetlands and estuaries.
Escambia County has four vessels laying out about 20,000 feet of boom to cover gaps in the federal government's preparations, particularly inland and around sensitive wetlands, said Keith Wilkins of the county emergency operations center in Pensacola.
Four skimmers are available, which the county expects to send out as early as today, he said.
Authorities expect the first signs of oil to appear either as light sheen or weathered globs, taking the form of tar balls or tar mats the consistency of peanut butter, or tar mousse, a puddinglike mixture rust brown or orange in color.
Crist and McCollum conducted an aerial tour of the approaching oil slick, where they saw a light sheen 31/2 miles from shore.
"We saw one small patch the size of a pond," McCollum said. "And there's no sign of boat skimming in that vicinity."
He urged the president to "call all hands on deck" and bring every available skimming boat to Florida. "There's no other oil spilling any where else," he said. "This stuff is going to come."
Crist said that when he sees Obama today in Louisiana he will ask for stepped-up assistance, with more skimming boats and boom. The goal should be to skim and extract the oil before it even reaches the beach, he said.
McCollum called the federal response "unacceptable." Crist was more forgiving.
"It's an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, and I understand they want to put assets where it's happening, but I want to do everything we can to protect Florida," he said. "We are working within certain limits."
Sen. Bill Nelson, who arrived in Pensacola for a firsthand look at the preparations to combat the oil spill, said it was time to call on the Navy's technology to assist in the response.
"This is the largest environmental disaster in our nation's history," Nelson said. "If this doesn't call for more organization, control and assets — like subsea mapping by the Navy, for instance — then nothing does."
Crist said Florida has exhausted the $25 million BP gave the state and has spent or committed a total of $55 million preparing for the oil. Writing to BP president Lamar McKay on Thursday, Crist asked for another $50 million, noting more than 770 miles of coastline at risk and "the uncertainties associated with the longevity of this event."
Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, also wrote to BP, demanding that CEO Tony Hayward appear before the governor and Cabinet "to explain your plan to protect Florida's economy and environment, and provide an update on BPs compensation requests from Florida businesses."
She also criticized the White House for not doing more to help affected businesses. "If the federal government truly is in charge, they will come in here with the small-business owners, put checks into their hands."
McCollum, a GOP candidate for governor, reserved his criticism for the Obama administration. There aren't enough skimmers in Florida, he said, and decisionmaking is too slow and centralized at the Coast Guard's unified command center in Mobile, Ala.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, he said the federal government must have a decisionmaker in every affected Florida county and enable and encourage new technologies for cleaning up the oil plume.