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Gunky oil slimes Panhandle beaches to Grayton state park

PENSACOLA — The impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster spread farther east Saturday, as tar balls showed up in Walton County and at least one official predicted it would continue moving in that direction.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who held a somewhat rowdy news conference on Pensacola Beach on Saturday morning along with pop singer Jimmy Buffett, reassured tourists and the media that Florida officials are doing everything they can to deal with tar balls washing up throughout the Florida Panhandle.

Crist, however, conceded that even more could be done as rust-colored oil blobs continued fouling the state's white sandy beaches for a second day. Sightings of the oily globs, ranging from the size of dimes to hamburger patties, came from as far east as Grayton Beach State Park in Walton County, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Crist said U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen had promised to send 20 more boats to Florida waters to skim oil before it reaches land, but that's still not as much as the governor would like.

"I'd like 50. I'd like 100," Crist said as reporters and beachgoers crowded around him, firing questions.

Crist said keeping more oil off the shoreline is "the utopian objective." He said he'll continue to press for more oil-containment booms.

"We're going to ask and ask and ask," Crist said. Some beachgoers shouted at him that the state needed to do more to help those hurt by the disaster, but then one local businessman rushed in to shake his hand and thank him for all he'd done.

Although Alabama officials have talked of closing down public access to coastal waters, Crist and DEP Secretary Mike Sole said they have seen no reason to take similar steps in Florida. DEP employees are doing frequent tests of the water quality, Sole said.

Throughout the day there were conflicting reports about where the oil was floating in the Gulf of Mexico and where it might be headed next.

A 50-foot cruiser from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found "a very light sheen 4 to 10 miles out" between Pensacola and Destin, said Capt. Brad Williams, who captains the ship.

It appeared to be the same sheen that has been hovering off the Florida shore for several days, he said.

"There are fingers of it coming in to the beach, streaks of it," Williams said. "It's just kind of hovering out there."

However, Pensacola Mayor Mike Wiggins told reporters late Saturday that the sheen was a mile offshore from Pensacola Beach, and the main part of the plume from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was 14 to 17 miles out.

"It had a sort of an easterly drift," Wiggins said. He predicted what he called "a windshield wiper effect," where the oil would float east, then drift back to the west, then go east again.

But DEP officials said the sheen was sighted just more than half a mile south of Pensacola Beach and Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa County.

The presence of tar balls at Grayton Beach State Park — frequently hailed as one of the most pristine beaches in the United States — marks the farthest east that the oil has reached so far. On National Park Service property, the thickest concentration appeared in the surf line at Opal Beach near Navarre, according to park service spokeswoman Katie Lawhon.

"They were a quarter to a half-dollar size, and about 250 of them in a 20-foot square survey area," she said. About 100 cleanup crew members used shovels and plastic bags to clean the beach, she said.

A trip into Pensacola Pass on Saturday aboard a 30-foot powerboat owned by the Florida wildlife commission found neither a sheen nor any tar mats, which had been found there the day before. Heaps of yellow booms lay piled on the shoreline near Fort Pickens, awaiting crews to stretch them across the pass in a V-shape in hopes of stopping the oil from moving to inland waterways.

More than a dozen boats were fishing in the pass, about average for a Saturday in June, said Officer Sarah Manning, part of the powerboat's three-person crew. "We are getting more fish moving this way because of the oil," Manning said. But she said she could not say whether the fish had sensed something amiss underwater.

Manning said the crew is also encountering a lot more waterborne sightseers — people taking their boats out in hopes of spotting the oil in the water. Manning compared them to "people who take their videocameras out in a hurricane, hoping to see the feeder bands."

Buffett, who also accompanied Crist on a helicopter flight over the beach, was no sightseer. He has a strong financial interest in how the government deals with this disaster because his new Margaritaville hotel is due to open June 24 in Pensacola Beach.

The singer, dressed in his usual T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, said he hoped tourists would still visit the Panhandle the way they do every summer. He suggested that visitors could "come down and help clean up the beach rather than just lie around and soak up the sun."

Gunky oil slimes Panhandle beaches to Grayton state park 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 11:25pm]

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