Panhandle beach busy as oil approaches and BP tries a new cleanup plan

PENSACOLA — Beachgoers frolicked in the surf at Perdido Key late Sunday afternoon. The swimmers cleared the water as the tide began coming through as a large number of tar bars began littering the shoreline. Barges working the oil spill recovery can be seen just west of the swimmers.

Oil giant BP, in response to Coast Guard demands for a more-aggressive cleanup strategy, has revised its cleanup plan. The new goal: capturing 50,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of June — two weeks earlier than the previous cleanup schedule.

''This has required an enormous amount of examination and effort,'' BP spokesman Jon Pack said of the accelerated timeline. ''We are pushing boundaries.''

BP's new plan comes as the company finds itself under increasing pressure from the White House in advance of the president's scheduled address to the nation on Tuesday following a tour of the Gulf Coast region.

Air Force One landed in Biloxi at 10:20 a.m. Monday, with White House spokesman Bill Burton telling reporters the administration is confident it has the legal authority to force BP to set up a separate escrow account to handle damage claims. Funneling the money through an escrow account — which would be administered by an independent third party — has been a top priority of late for federal officials, who complain the current BP-administered claims system lacks transparency.

Burton said President Obama personally decided to do his address Tuesday from the Oval Office, his first speech delivered there.

''What we're seeing in the Gulf is a catastrophe the likes of which we've never seen before,'' Burton said.

As the Gulf region continues to stew in anger and frustration over the spill, the president's arrival prompted criticism from affected residents that this latest trip amounted to ''too little, too late.''

''He should have gotten on BP's butt two months ago,'' said Pensacola resident Ron Thomas, 75. Thomas called Obama's visit ''just another photo opportunity, but at least it gives people a chance to see the beach before it's destroyed.''

In Florida, beaches remained open and active, though two large plumes of oil were detected south of Pensacola Bay on Sunday, and officials closed a portion of state waters to fishing, crabbing and shrimping.

Scientists still are uncertain about the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf, 55 days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 people and triggering the worst spill in the nation's history.

The government's latest estimates of the spill have ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 barrels daily.

BP reported Sunday that a containment dome lowered over the broken well's blowout-preventer had collected about 7,400 barrels of oil in the 12 hours before midnight. Total oil collected since the cap was deployed on June 4 is about 120,000 barrels.

U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the true measure of oil spilled will not be known until August, when BP expects to cap the well.

He expects clean-up of oil on the surface and possibly the Gulf Coast shores to continue well into the fall.

The government has repeatedly said BP is liable for the clean-up costs, and Allen said there was little concern at the moment about BP's being driven to bankruptcy by claims from the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals.

''They're a company that has a lot of wealth inside it,'' Allen said. ''I don't think that's a consideration.''

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Sunday he welcomed the White House's attention because it leads to quicker action and more assets to fight the spill.

''That kind of focus only helps all of us,'' he said.

Crist emphasized that no state beaches have closed due to the spill and said he has requested more skimming boats from the Coast Guard.

He estimated that oil from the spill was three to four miles off the coast of Pensacola Beach.

Still, on Sunday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission closed about 23 miles of coastline in the Panhandle's Escambia County to fishing, crabbing and shrimping because oil was present several miles offshore.

Also, a plume of weathered oil about two miles wide and 40 miles long was detected nine miles south of Pensacola Pass, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

A second plume of non-weathered oil, verified through state reconnaissance data, was identified three miles south of Pensacola Pass.

A sheen of oil, described as a long ribbon, came into Pensacola Bay early Sunday morning and skimmers were quickly deployed, said Brandi Thompson, an Escambia County spokeswoman.

Also, two barges collecting oil Saturday night in Perdido Pass collided, resulting in a small fire but no injuries.

Over the weekend, a Miami Herald reporter aboard a boat witnessed large ribbons and patches of oil off Pensacola.

About two miles off shore from Perdido Key, there were large looping fields of orange and brown dispersed oil with thicker tar balls and patties floating in them.

Boats were working around the clock to skim oil and pull tar balls from the waters.

About 3 ½ miles south of Perdido Key, a ring of six boats, with crews in full-body, yellow and white HAZMAT suits, pulled oily gunk from the water.

White absorbant boom, soaked with thick brown crude, stretched about 120 feet from one fishing boat to another.

On another boat, two men pulled heavy pom pons covered in thick oil onto the boats, placing them in large plastic bags.

Yet the threat of oil looming offshore did not seem to deter beachgoers, many of whom frolicked in the waters off the white-sand beaches.

In Destin and Fort Walton Beach, tourists continued to pack beaches. And despite dime-size tar ball sightings on the beach, many hotels along U.S. 98 reported being sold out or close to it.

''You try not to think too much about what's going on out there in the ocean,'' Jim Turino, 54, said as he lounged on a beach chair at Beasley Park on Okaloosa Island, on the outskirts of Destin. ''You gotta look up at the sky, and just be happy that there's sun and it's not raining.''

Turino said he drove from his hometown near Mobile, Ala., to soak up the sun and surf of some of Destin's prize-winning beaches, hoping that it would not be the last of several summertime journeys.

''For a lot of families its a routine to drive from Alabama to the Panhandle beaches, it's not just the people of Florida that are going to feel the impact, but the families in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and who knows where else that consider these beaches part of our own,'' Turino said.

For weeks, county officials from Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa have raised concerns they were not receiving answers to their questions quick enough from Unified Command based in Mobile, Ala.

As a result, the three counties have partnered to send a representative to the command center to ensure they receive a quicker response to their questions. They will each rotate sending a county employee every three weeks.

''Having a face on the ground has helped us out,'' said Brad Baker, emergency services coordinator for Santa Rosa County. ''He's able to track people down if we have specific questions, or able to give us a rundown before we get some of the reports from Unified Command later in the day.''

Panhandle beach busy as oil approaches and BP tries a new cleanup plan 06/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 3:39pm]

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