Spill threatens Florida's beaches, tourism
Oil stains have been spotted in the sea about 10 miles from Pensacola and are expected to come ashore over the next two days.
Thu, Jun 03, 2010 at 05:53 AM
ON ITS WAY: The oil on the ocean’s surface is slowly moving eastward, threatening the local fauna along the coast and the large tourist centers in Florida. (Photo: Frank Brandmaier/ZUMA Press)
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill approached the sandy white beaches of Pensacola Thursday, threatening Florida's tourist industry just ahead of its prime summer season.
Some oil stains have been spotted in the sea about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Pensacola and were expected to come ashore over the next two days, Florida Governor Charlie Crist said Wednesday.
"The shifts, the winds and the currents are projecting weathered oil from the leading edge (which) could impact the Florida Panhandle as early as this week, possible in a day or two," he said.
Having already contaminated the Louisiana coast, the United States' worst environmental catastrophe is now being driven toward Florida by winds blowing from the south and west.
That spells disaster for a state that is one of the world's top destination for tourists, with more than 80 million visitors a year.
At a time of high unemployment in other sectors, tourism generates more than a million jobs and in 2008 brought the state $65 billion in revenue.
The Coast Guard confirmed reports by fishermen who observed oil sheen not far from Pensacola Beach and other beaches in nortwestern Florida.
The hotel business, commercial and sport fishing and diving are mainstays of the economy, especially in the summer, and they would be seriously impacted if oil spreads into the region and onto its beaches.
"Waters are clean and beaches are clean as well, but in this incident everything changes, so we are watchful, we are monitoring the situation, and we will do everything to protect our beautiful state," said Crist.
Florida has already received $35 million in compensation from BP, the British energy giant responsible for the leak, and is using it to promote visits to the state and get the word out that its beaches and waters are clean.
But if oil tars Florida beaches, the message will change, said Crist.
The public relations campaign will instead "discuss where it is and more importantly where it is not so the people understand that most of Florida is untouched by this at this hour," he said.
Michael Sole, head of Florida's environmental protection department, ruled out the use of dispersants to break up the spill before it reaches shore.
"The product that is heading our way is largely a weathered product, tar balls, tar mats, that type of material. Dispersants are largely ineffective on this heavily weathered oil," he said.
Oceanographers have warned that the use of dispersants in Florida could have devastating effects on the coral reefs that run parallel to the Florida Keys at the southern end of the state, another tourist attraction that is now at risk.
Every attempt BP has made to plug or contain the leak has failed since explosions ripped through its DeepwaterHorizon rig April 20, unleashing what has become the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Copyright 2010 AFP American Edition