Gulf oil spill: Tar, sheen and conflicting messages greet beachgoers

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At Florida’s Pensacola Beach on Thursday morning, a digital greeting sign flashed: “Oil on beach, stay out of gulf.” But when the county health department removed a beach advisory in place since earlier this week, the sign changed to: “Swim with caution.”

Janie Bishop, a Pensacola native visiting from Atlanta, was confused. She tried to walk down to the water through the white sugar sand by Pensacola Pier with her husband. They got close enough to see an oily sheen on the water and what might have been an oil stain at the shoreline before they were stopped by BP work crews in protective gloves and boots.

Bishop approached a lifeguard switching red flags (don’t swim) for yellow (caution). “So the water’s open?” Bishop asked. Yes, said the lifeguard, the health department rescinded the advisory.

“But they’re telling me I shouldn’t cross over,” Bishop said. “How can I get to the water?” Eventually, BP crews backed off, and swimmers made their way into the green waves at Casino Beach, diving and splashing, some with daiquiris and pina coladas in hand.


Bishop stayed on the shore.

“I don’t think it should be open if they’re still working,” she said. “Clean it up. I mean, I’m from here. Tourism is the big thing. But people could be tracking it back out. From a distance, it looks fine, but when you go up close and see it — I’m not going in.”

Much is at stake on Casino Beach. Tourism and development, twin industries that helped build Florida, depend as much on image as reality. Tour groups have dwindled in recent weeks, beach weddings have been canceled and condo sales have cooled, locals say. But if the beaches are open, they hope, the tourists will come. If the beaches look clean, they will swim, and possibly buy.

Health officials removed the advisory from the three-mile stretch of beach after noting the tar balls and swaths of black oil that alarmed locals and drew Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday had been cleared and had not returned, said Molly Payne-Hardin, a spokeswoman for the Escambia County Health Department. They did not test the water, she said.

“The presence of oil products is not so significant that a swimmer cannot avoid them,” she said.

Officials from the University of West Florida and the state Department of Health are testing water samples, Payne-Hardin said. But authorities had yet to see the results Thursday, and officials with the office did not return phone calls. By day’s end, federal officials had not lifted the advisory from the adjacent stretch of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

About 250 BP workers have been clearing oil residue, which they refer to as “tar mousse,” from the beach since Wednesday, according to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Matt Anderson, who was at the beach Friday. They work through the night, when the temperature drops (the heat index was 105 Thursday) and the viscous oil solidifies and is easier to remove, he said. They wear red head lamps designed not to disturb nesting turtles.

As he stood on Casino Beach on Thursday afternoon, Anderson compared clearing oil from sand in the heat of the day to “shoveling molasses with a spoon.” Even at night, he said, “it’s a painstaking job. You’ve got tar balls that are the size of a quarter.”

That did not trouble several dozen beachgoers in the surf Thursday.

“If I don’t see any, I don’t worry about it,” said John Laritz, 78, a retired construction superintendent from Pensacola who took a dip at the beach Thursday. He said health department officials did the right thing.

“They’re trying to get people here to the beach,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”

Gabriel Huffman, 20, a nursing student visiting from Lafayette, La., went in the water with her friends, in bikinis. So did Gina McGrath, 37, a registered nurse from Lafayette, Ga., with her children.

“We could take whatever gets on us off,” McGrath said.

Katina Tucker, 37, a stay-home mom in Pensacola, told her three children — ages 13, 11 and 4 — not to go underwater when she left to take some photographs of the cleanup. Of course, they did, and they got some oil on their legs.

Tucker started to cry.

“Our whole beach is supposed to look like that,” she said, pointing toward the white dunes, away from the stained shoreline. “My daughter’s not supposed to get oil on her legs.”

She surveyed the water, where two skimmer boats had strung a stretch of white boom between them to sweep up oil.

“I’m sure it’s prettier now than it will be in a month,” she said.

Under an umbrella, a woman in a great blue heron T-shirt stood choking back tears. The oil, Cheryl Wiggins said, will never come out: It’s seeping into the sound and the bays.

“It’s all poisoned now,” Wiggins, 60, said as she watched the sheen swirl around one of the Louisiana girls wearing a blue bikini and a fleur de lis belly-button ring. “I see the natural world dying right in front of me. That’s hard to take. This is the end right here in front of you. It’s lost, all lost.”

This was the beach Wiggins’ father used to bring her to as a child. He cast nets for mullet from shore while she and her twin brother ran through the surf, gigging flounders with long poles. “Chasing chow,” they called it. Now her father is dead, her brother killed in Vietnam, and she has taken to calling the beach she had hoped to leave to her great-grandchildren “the dead sea.”

“I brought my camera,” the retired veterinary worker said. “But I can’t seem to take a picture.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske, from Pensacola Beach, Fla