Florida Panhandle bracing for more tar balls, oil

Transocean Offshore Installation Manager Chris Wokowsky stands on Transocean Offshore Installation Manager Chris Wokowsky stands on the deck of the Development Driller II, which is drilling a relief well, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on June 19, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. The BP oil spill has been called one of the largest environmental disasters in American history. (Charlie Neibergall-Pool/Getty Images) Photo Credit: Getty/Pool

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PANAMA CITY BEACH Fla. - The Coast Guard vessel came to a halt, and soon there were softball-sized tar balls and an oily substance floating on the surface.

Everywhere.

While people played on the Panhandle's beaches not even eight miles away Sunday, more globs of goo headed toward the shore in the latest sign that oil from the Deepwater Horizon well is moving further east and encroaching on Florida's white-sand beaches.

Aboard a Coast Guard boat searching for oil off Panama City Beach, the crew spotted a nearly mile-long sheen of tar balls drifting toward the shore — far bigger and in greater numbers than those that first littered the beaches here a day earlier.

"We're just trying to find the oil first so boats don't track through it, and hopefully everyone can clean it up in time and keep as much of it off the beach as possible," said Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Bush, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Panama City.

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Even with beachgoers spread out across the Panhandle's beaches on another sunny day, there were signs everywhere that something wasn't right.

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Along Fort Walton Beach, tarry deposits with the texture of brown sugar mixed with butter dotted the beach. Children built sandcastles and adults sunbathed nearby.

BP contractors were combing sand to remove dozens of smaller tar balls washing up on Panama City Beach, and hundreds of feet of containment boom were lined up ready on the shore of St. Andrews Bay if needed.

Not enough oil is coming into the bay yet to justify cutting off access to the bay, said Mark Bowen, director of the Bay County Emergency Operations Center.

"We don't want to restrict commerce, and we don't want to block any recreational vessels unless we have to," Bowen said. "When it's time, we'll know."

Florida is now seeing bigger consequences of the April 20 explosion on the BP oil leak. The incident killed 11 men, caused a well blowout some 50 miles off Louisiana's coast and unleashed an environmental nightmare.

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More than 125 million gallons have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico already from the blown out BP well, according to the most pessimistic federal estimates. A newly expanded containment system is capturing or incinerating more than a million gallons of oil daily, the first time it has approached its peak capacity, according to the Coast Guard.

BP hopes that by late June it will keep nearly 90 percent of the oil flow from hitting the ocean.

It will likely be August before crews finish drilling the relief wells that officials say are the best bets for stopping the leak. Some scientists say this is not good news for Florida's beaches, which are the lifeblood of the state's tourism industry.

At least one Florida-based scientist said the oil will continue to move east to Apalachicola, home to a majority of the state's oyster beds, and down the Florida peninsula's west coast.

Hans Graber, a professor at the University of Miami, said Sunday that he expects the oil to eventually wash ashore near Clearwater, Sarasota and farther south.

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"I can't tell you when," he said.

Some scientists have disagreed over whether oil would hit Florida's west coast, or whether it would get into the loop current and avoid the west coast and flow down to the Keys and up Florida's east coast. Graber thinks both will likely happen.

"Oil is slowly creeping along the coast," he said.

On Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard and BP contractors set up skimmer boats off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

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