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Panhandle beachgoers picking up tar balls by hand

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:40 AM
PENSACOLA -

They came armed with cups, plates, bottles, plastic bags, anything they could get their hands on.
As tar balls and other small globs of oil began to wash up on Pensacola Beach this morning and into the afternoon, ordinary people became the cleanup crew.

They weren't wearing gloves or protective clothes. They wore swimsuits and had a simple mission in mind: try to save the white beach they love.

Dale Balsavich sees himself as sort of a one-man cleanup crew.

While most people go to the beach to collect seashells, he was on a mission this morning to collect as many tar balls as he could in a small plastic blue bowl.

"Where's the government? Where's the BP people?'' the 26-year-old personal trainer asked as he walked along the beach, stooping every few steps to gather more gunk. "They're the ones supposed to be cleaning this up.''

Balsavich had gone less than 100 yards on the beach and already his bowl was overflowing with a brown mixture of goo that looked like melted fudge.

"It's a travesty,'' the Pensacola native said. "The beach will be affected and won't come back for a long, long time. Toxic sludge is what we are dealing with.''

Sonya Daniel, spokeswoman for Escambia County emergency management, said a dozen teams of 10 people each were combing the beach to look for oil, which had impacted about a 10-mile stretch of the shore.

"They would really like to find it in the sand, right on the shore, not where someone has handled it," Daniel said. "Be our lookout, spot it and then let the assessment teams go out and do the collection."

The oil is considered a contaminated substance and should not be touched, the spokeswoman said. Globs of oil ranging from a quarter to the size of a dinner plate were washing up, she added.

As children frolicked in the waves and parents and toddlers built sandcastles, members of the media gathered around folks such as Balsavich who were finding oil washing up on the formerly pristine white beaches.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg,'' Balsavich said. "It's a shame. It's really sad because there are a lot of people who depend on this beach for their livelihood.''

Predicting path is speculation at best

And more may be on the way, according to a consortium of disaster officials from several Gulf states that make up the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command. Winds gusting up to 28 mph from the southwest are expected through Sunday and that could push portions of the oil plume onto the western Panhandle beaches. Seas of up to 6 feet also are expected.

Officials say a 30 to 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms over the weekend could hamper some recovery operations.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil plume model updated today, a large oil slick is 17 miles from Pensacola, more than 100 miles from Gulf County, and 280 miles from St. Petersburg. Some smaller globs of oil are scattered across the Gulf, officials say, and may be closer to shore, although they can't be seen in satellite photos.

States of emergency have been declared in 10 coastal Panhandle counties. Emergency operations centers have been activated in six of those counties. None of the beaches has been closed.

Throughout the crisis, predictions about where the slick will wash ashore have been speculative at best.

Robert Weisberg, oceanography professor at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, criticized the efforts to map the oil and predict where it's going.

"In 43 days, I'd like to think that given all the agencies and resources thrown at this problem, somebody hasn't come up with a nice, simple, concise place to post clear maps of where the oil is based on satellite photos and surveys," he said. If the location of the oil slick can be pinpointed, better predictions can be made about where it is headed, he said.

Complicating the problem over the past couple of days has been cloud cover over the Gulf, he said. Satellite photos aren't clear and imaging photos don't help much either.

He said he and other scientists trying to help "would be of better service if we could get more information from the field as to where the oil is."

As for oil washing ashore all along the Panhandle, that is a likely scenario over the next few days and weeks, he said.

"The longer this goes on," he said referring to the busted pipe that is gushing crude oil from the bottom of the Gulf near the Louisiana coast, "the more the risk there is of that."

The coastline along West Central Florida is safe - at least for a while, he said.

"I see no imminent threat to us," he said. "There may be some in the future, but it'll be pretty far off."

Tourists pitching in to clean up

In Pensacola, tourists pitched in to clean up the beach.

Carol Van Kay of Venice was visiting her sister, Kathy Stanton, in Pensacola when they both headed to the beach with tiny plastic bags on their hands. They compared picking up the tar balls to picking up after a dog.

"This beach is so nice,'' Van Kay said, admitting she was worried about west coast beaches such as Venice, Sarasota and elsewhere. "If people can pick these tar balls up, the more, the better. It will keep the beach that more clean.''

Edie Manning has been coming to Pensacola Beach since she was 15.

The 49-year-old Tennessee resident was getting ready for a day of sun as news crews blanketed the sandy white beaches.

"It hurts me," she said of the oily mess that began to wash ashore. "It hurts my heart to think that this beach could be closed at the peak of the season."

Manning said she has been to beaches all across the country but that this destination in Escambia County is her favorite.

"Pensacola Beach is my beach," she said. "It's home to me."

She said she was most worried about the economic impact it would have on everyday workers -- at docks, restaurants, hotels and other places.

"You can see it in their faces," she said. "It's their livelihood."

John Hughes of New Orleans brought his wife and twin 10-year-old daughters to Pensacola Beach because he said it might be the last time they ever see it this white.

"It is so pretty and white and beautiful,'' Hughes said as Camryn and Courtney frolicked in the large waves crashing ashore. "It could ruin it for the rest of their lifetime.''

Hughes, who brings his family on vacation to the Panhandle a couple of times each year, said it has been heartbreaking to see the devastation in his own state of Louisiana.

"Every day the girls ask if I can take them to the coastline to help rescue those animals,'' he said.

Courtney's biggest worry is that "all the animals will die and they won't be able to be rescued.'' She is most worried about pelicans, dolphins and turtles.

"It makes me really sad to see that,'' she said of television images of blackened, dying birds and other wildlife.

As for Camryn's biggest fear? "The sand will turn black and it won't ever be pretty again.''

Crist calls news 'very disturbing'

Pensacola Beach wasn't the only place getting tar balls. Waves of gooey tar blobs were washing ashore in growing numbers elsewhere in the Panhandle and nearby Alabama beaches today as a slick from the BP spill drifted closer to shore.

Spotters who had been seeing a few tar balls in recent days found a substantially larger number starting before dawn on the beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and nearby areas, a county emergency official said. The park is a long string of connected barrier islands near Pensacola.

Keith Wilkins from Escambia County emergency management said tar patties were common on parts of the beach, as much as one every foot.

Small gobs of reddish brown oil washed up in the surf for the first time in nearby Gulf Shores, Ala., this morning and a petroleum smell tinged the air.

Officials have said it is inevitable oil will eventually wash up on Panhandle beaches after a slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill was spotted about 9 miles offshore this week. The edge of the spill had moved to four miles off the coast Thursday, Gov. Charlie Crist said after a flyover.

Crist said the news of today's growth in tar balls was "very disturbing."

"Obviously, it's not the kind of news that we want to hear," Crist said on CNN's "American Morning."

Escambia County emergency officials have been preparing for the oil by shoring up miles of boom. The county plans to block oil from reaching inland waterways, but left its beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to shield and easier to clean up.

Joe Fairleigh and his son, Henry, of Kentucky were going for a stroll on Pensacola Beach when they found a gooey mess of tar. And another. And then another.

"It is all along the beach. We must have seen a hundred," the father said as he held a clump of oil mixed with sand perched in a children's sand toy.

"It's really scary to think how big the Gulf is and how much coastline could be impacted by this," he added.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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