A Florida beach was closed to visitors for the first time because of the Gulf oil spill Thursday as workers tried to remove pools of black sludge from Pensacola Beach’s once-white sands.
Authorities ran yellow tape along a quarter-mile of the beach about 75 feet back from the water, leaving beachgoer Nancy Salinas in tears.
“It’s just awful. It just breaks your heart,” she said. “I can’t get my feet in the water.”
Lifeguard Collin Cobia wore a red handkerchief over his nose and mouth to block the oil smell.
“It’s enough to knock you down,” he said.
Health advisories warning people not to swim or fish have been posted for a total of nearly 40 miles of Florida Panhandle beaches, stretching from the Florida/Alabama border through Pensacola Beach and through a stretch of beaches further east in Walton and Okaloosa counties, including the popular tourist spot of Destin.
The suggested advisories had been posted in various areas since the beginning of the month, but people hadn’t been kept off a Florida beach by authorities before Thursday.
More than 100 miles to the east, U.S Coast Guard Capt. Steven Poulin spoke to a small group of local officials in Panama City. Poulin is in charge of the federal government’s onshore response to the spill from the Mississippi Coast through the Florida Panhandle and oversees the Mobile, Ala.-based spill command center.
Coast Guard officials said Poulin wanted to come to Panama City himself because the sheets of oil and tar balls have spread throughout the Panhandle in recent days.
Millions of barrels of crude have been burned at the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, thousands of barrels are being collected on site each day, more than 2,000 ships are working to corral oil with skimmers and boom. The federal government estimates between 68.5 million gallons and 130 million gallons of oil have gushed into the gulf since an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the Louisiana coast. The blast killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) underwater. Oil giant BP PLC was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.
“We are doing everything we can to contain the oil,” Poulin said.
Poulin, who likened effort to contain the spill to a battle, would not speculate about how long the fight might last or where the enemy could go. Other officials are preparing to fight the oil in other parts of Florida, Poulin said.
“My responsibility is the Panhandle,” he said.
Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Obama administration on Thursday for a more rapid clean up of oiled beaches and for more skimmers and boom.
Crist has also asked BP for itemized claims data amid complaints that the oil giant is processing them too slowly.
“We’re going to do everything we can to push BP further. I was on the phone with BP most of last night,” he said.