Tar Balls Found in Florida Keys Weren't From BP Spill, Coast Guard Finds

BP Plc’s leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well wasn’t the source of tar balls that washed up at Key West and two other south Florida islands, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Tests by the Coast Guard Marine Safety Laboratory in New London, Connecticut, “conclusively” show the oil in the tar balls didn’t match oil from the BP well, the Coast Guard said today in a statement. The source of the oil is unknown, it said.

Tar balls, chunks of oil that form after exposure to winds and waves, washed up on Big Pine Key and Loggerhead Key yesterday after rangers at a Key West state park found 20 tar balls on May 17. All were flown to the lab yesterday.

“The source could be from a large tanker’s bilge,” Sabrina Elgammal, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami, said in an interview. “It could have been from a casualty months ago. Sometimes when a small boat leaks oil, it goes to the ocean floor because once it becomes tar, it sinks. It could have been washed up ashore months ago.”

Discovery of the Key West tar balls coincided with announcements by independent researchers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that oil from the BP spill is, or soon will be, in the loop current, a stream of warm water that runs through the Gulf and past the Florida Keys before joining the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean.

Loop Current

“The tar balls washing ashore in the Florida Keys are an example of what might happen if oil becomes entrained in the loop current and that is the scenario we are anticipating,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said yesterday on a conference call with reporters.

Once caught in the loop current, oil from the BP spill would reach waters around the Florida Keys in eight to 10 days, Lubchenco said. As a precaution against oil in the current tainting seafood destined for market, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last night nearly doubled the amount of federally administered Gulf waters closed to fishing. About 19 percent of federal waters in the region are now closed to commercial and recreational fishing.

The bulk of the oil remains near the site of the April 20 explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Venice, Louisiana. Eleven workers were killed on the rig, which London-based BP leased from Transocean Ltd.

BP fell 10.5 pence, or 2 percent, to 523.5 at 4:35 p.m. in London trading. The shares have fallen 20 percent since the explosion.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Polson in New York at jpolson@bloomberg.net

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