The latest projections say the Deepwater Horizon oil spill's leading edge could ooze onto Pensacola's beaches sometime late this week, marking the spill's first official landfall in Florida.
Winds that kept the spill 50 or more miles away from the Panhandle for the past six weeks have now shifted and are pushing the oil back toward Florida, said state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole. Federal officials have now banned fishing off the tip of the Panhandle, meaning 31 percent of the gulf is now closed to both commercial and recreational fishing.
The oil is arriving just in time for hurricane season. This is also when Florida is supposed to kick off its $25 million advertising extravaganza — financed by BP — touting how clean the Panhandle's beaches are.
"Obviously if that happens we'll have to pull the ads and rebrand," said Gov. Charlie Crist.
An oil sheen was confirmed about 9 miles off the Florida coast on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.
Escambia County officials started putting out booms Tuesday and making other plans for the arrival of the oil. Crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it has impacted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.
In Pensacola, some local officials have developed a strong distaste for the way both BP and federal officials are overseeing the oil spill response.
"They're not doing anything to protect our beach," said W.A. "Buck" Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. "And when I asked them what they were going to do to clean it up, they said, 'I don't know.' I don't have much faith in BP or the federal government."
The Escambia County Commission, which oversees Pensacola and its environs all the way to the Alabama line, isn't much happier, but commissioners say they understand the problem.
"Escambia County has 36 miles of beaches," explained commission chairman Grover Robinson IV. "It's impossible to keep 36 miles free of oil."
To protect all 36 miles of beach would require more than 190,000 feet of booms to block the oil. So far 257,750 feet of booms — or 48 miles — have been deployed across Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties. Sole said some booms will be put across beach areas, but only to minimize the damage there, not prevent it entirely.
Instead their focus is on blocking the oil from reaching the coastal wetlands and inland areas, which are far harder to clean than beaches. As a result, Robinson said, oil will be allowed to get onto the famous sugar-white sands, a scenario sure to hurt the area's beach-centered tourism industry.
Lee said his agency had proposed digging up the top layer of Pensacola Beach sand and pulling it out of the way of the oil, then putting it back once the cleanup is done. But federal officials said no.
Increasing local officials' frustration factor, Robinson said, is that they know the slick could pile onto the beach, then back off long enough for the shores to be cleaned, then slop back ashore again.
Robinson said he wishes BP had paid as much attention to sopping up the spreading oil slick as it has to shutting off its undersea gusher.
"It would've been nicer if BP had done more to get it up while it was in the gulf," he said. "They should have been figuring out how to get it off the surface as well as shutting off the leak."
Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been posting their projections on the oil spill's movements in 72-hour increments. The latest set of projections, prepared Monday, shows the slick gradually moving into the mouth of Mobile Bay this week, then sliding east across Alabama's coastline and touching the beaches near Pensacola starting about Thursday.
Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground, says winds out of the southwest will push the spill near the Florida Panhandle by Saturday. Gina Cherundolo of Accuweather made a similar prediction, adding that the wind speeds could hit 20 and 30 mph, kicking up some rough surf.
However, those projections — like those predicting the path of hurricanes — can be wrong.
"It's all going to depend on the weather. The wind could change it," said NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman.
A month ago Pensacola beaches seemed to be in the crosshairs, and then winds across the gulf pushed the oil back toward Louisiana.
The delay has given federal, state and local officials more time to plan where to place their booms and skimmer boats, said Keith Wilkins, Escambia County's deputy chief of neighborhood and community services. Crews are now out on the beaches scouring the surf for any signs of oil.
Some tar balls washed ashore last week, he said, but so far have not been definitely tied to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But there have been other reminders of the disaster wafting in on the breeze.
"We've had some odors, especially when they've been burning" parts of the slick, Wilkins said. "It smells kind of sweet, like kerosene."
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or [email protected]