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Booms wouldn't keep oil from beaches, experts say

If the BP oil spill ever reaches the Tampa Bay area, there are plans to set out floating booms to protect environmentally sensitive marshes and estuaries and mangroves.

But what about the beaches that are the lifeblood of the local economy?

It turns out that little can be done to protect the beaches, and that makes the tourism industry nervous. For instance, Pinellas County's 35 miles of beaches bring in $7 billion a year, and officials say even a 25 percent drop in tourism would close 300 local restaurants and cost 21,000 jobs.

Environmental officials say there's no realistic way to keep oil off the beaches, which is also what Pensacola leaders were told before oil began washing up on their shores. Officials say the sand will just have to be cleaned up afterward — as was the case on Panhandle beaches Friday.

"Booms are not effective for beach areas," said Camille Evans, a spokeswoman for Pinellas County Emergency Management. "They're difficult to secure in open water due to wave action."

Experts are still seeing no evidence that the oil spill will reach the bay area, though no one knows for sure. In case the worst happens, local volunteers are being asked to register for a massive beach cleanup that would take place if oil is about to make landfall here.

If BP's oil shows up on our shores, it won't come in the form of an oil slick, experts say. Because the oil would have to travel hundreds of miles, it would likely arrive here as tar balls — the same gooey blobs that are now washing up on Florida's Panhandle.

"We may see scattered tar balls and potentially a light sheen. Containment booms have a limited effect against that type of threat," said Timyn Rice of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who's stationed at a St. Petersburg command post dealing with the oil spill.

For one thing, tar balls in shallow water can pick up sand and sink from the weight, sliding beneath floating booms. Also, because it's impractical to cordon off 35 miles of beach, officials would need "really good intelligence" on the location of tar balls heading ashore, Rice said.

If oil washes up on local beaches, federally approved and properly trained contractors will do the cleanup, not volunteers, officials said.

Tourism officials have questions about that.

"The beach will be cleaned by whom? At what expense? And how long will it take?" asked Sheila Cole of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"BP is responsible for cleanup," said Clearwater's emergency manager, Rick Carnley.

He added that the city is prepared to use large rakes towed by tractors to scoop up tar balls on Clearwater Beach.

"We don't want anyone to run out on the beach and just start picking up the stuff with yard gloves on," he said.

Still, officials say a lot of locals are upset about the oil spill and are calling in, seeking to volunteer in some way. They're being steered toward a "preoil" coastal cleanup coordinated by the group Keep Pinellas Beautiful.

This cleanup will happen only if the Coast Guard gets word that oil residue is threatening this area's shoreline. Volunteers who register for it will be notified by e-mail if that day comes. The intent is to speed up the oil cleanup by removing litter ahead of time and reducing the amount of contaminated material that cleanup crews will have to deal with.

The group's executive director, Bill Sanders, said, "Our goal is to clean up every inch of the Pinellas County coastline, including the outer islands."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Fast facts

Preoil cleanup

At least 2,000 volunteers are needed to clean the Pinellas beaches of debris. This would happen just before any oil landfall. Trained contractors, not volunteers, will then clean up oil or tar balls. Sign up online at pinvol.org or call (727) 533-0402.

Fast facts

Hazards from oil

People should stay away from oil on the beach or in the water, but swallowing a little oil-tainted water or getting slimed by a tar ball is not considered grounds for a trip to the emergency room, health officials say.

Oil is toxic. Short exposures may cause only fleeting symptoms, but exposure to large amounts for a long time could lead to problems with breathing, thinking and coordination, and potentially raise the risk of cancer, toxicologists say.

Children are more sensitive to the pollution than adults.

Booms wouldn't keep oil from beaches, experts say 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 11:18pm]
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