Florida Officials Want to Run Cleanup With BP’s Funds

BP Plc should hand over the effort to clean up its oil washing onto Florida beaches because the company is failing to take forceful enough action, local government officials said.

“They can write the checks,” Gene Valentino, a commissioner for Escambia County, which includes Pensacola Beach, told reporters at a briefing yesterday. “In the meantime, we need action. We need boots on the ground. We need specific remedies and solutions to respond to the impacts as they occur.”

Floridians are preparing for the worst as oil spilling from a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico threatens the state’s $60 billion tourism industry. Officials of Escambia County in Florida’s northwest Panhandle, where tar balls and clumps of oil began soiling white-sand beaches last week, said hundreds of residents have called and sent e-mails asking how they can help, with little response from BP on what to do.

One area resident improvised a tool to sift tar balls from the sand by attaching a cat-litter scooper onto a piece of plastic pipe, Grover Robinson, chairman of the Escambia County Commission, told reporters today.

“That worked better than anything BP has been using,” Robinson said. Tar balls, clumps of unrefined oil and impurities, have the consistency of peanut butter and often rest on top of the sand after the tide goes out.

Some BP workers have been improvising by using “cut-in-half Pepsi bottles” to scrape up the tar, he said.

BP ‘Ready, Prepared’

Lucia Bustamante, BP’s spokeswoman in Florida, said the London-based company is committed to helping the state.

“We are ready, we are prepared,” she said in an interview yesterday. BP is training people “as fast as we can” and working to ensure that all of the clean-up workers are local residents, she said.

Twenty skimmer boats are being brought to the Pensacola area from elsewhere in the country, and some won’t arrive for a week or two, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, said today at a press briefing.

“I’m outraged by that,” McCollum said. “Why are we waiting this long to do this? Why is the Coast Guard, Obama, BP waiting? They’ve seen it coming, so why are we waiting?”

Skimmer Boats, Booms

McCollum called for more skimmer boats, material for double and triple layers of boom and exploration of other materials such as oil-absorbing polypropylene sheets.

Valentino said the crews cleaning up local beaches, including BP workers, county employees and volunteers, will increase to about 1,000 people today from about 550 yesterday.

The Deepwater Horizon Response, consisting of BP and almost a dozen federal agencies, posted an update on its website yesterday saying a June 5 flyover by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection saw only a “light sheen, one ten-millionth of a meter thick” off the coast of Florida.

“They may be spinning it to say the effects so far have been minimal in Florida, but unfortunately I suspect this will worsen,” Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said in an interview yesterday.

Beaches remained open to visitors yesterday as workers roamed the shore with gloves and garbage bags cleaning up clumps of oil.

Closing Beaches

The decision on whether beaches should be closed or swimming advisories issued rests largely with Florida’s health department and the unified command, which includes BP and the Coast Guard, according to the local officials.

Valentino, who is planning to be part of dive team to study the oil underwater, said he wouldn’t swim in the ocean if it weren’t necessary.

“But I don’t know the level of toxicity,” he said. “So I’m cautious not to convey a sense of ‘the sky is falling’ when it’s not there yet. The beaches are still open and inviting.”

Jim Sanborn, host of “Good Morning Pensacola” on WCOA, a local AM radio station, said he saw “thousands and thousands of tar balls” on Pensacola Beach yesterday morning.

‘Ruined Our Beach’

“It was extremely depressing,” said Sanborn, 55, in an interview. “As far as I’m concerned, they have totally ruined our beach because for years and years to come you are going to have tar balls always on the Pensacola Beach.”

Florida draws about 80 million visitors a year, bringing in $60 billion and making tourism the state’s No. 1 industry, according to Kathy Torian, spokeswoman for Florida’s tourism office in Tallahassee. Tourism accounts for almost one-quarter of the state’s sales-tax revenue, she said.

Of Florida’s 19 million residents, almost 1 million work in tourism, Torian said.

Escambia County, which includes Pensacola and Pensacola Beach, has committed $3 million for the cleanup so far, Robinson said yesterday. The county is seeking reimbursement from a $25 million state fund provided by BP.

Fear that oil may be on its way has spread beyond the Panhandle beaches. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from the state, met June 3 with hoteliers, business owners, fishermen and environmentalists in St. Petersburg in west-central Florida.

“There’s tremendous anxiety,” Castor said in an interview.

Patricia Hubbard, whose family owns a deep-sea fishing charter business and seafood restaurant in Madeira Beach, Florida, near St. Petersburg, said she noticed a slowing in business immediately after the spill, though she is most concerned about the summer season ahead.

“We are under attack,” Hubbard, 62, said in an interview yesterday. “It’s not a terrorist attack, but it’s terror. The biggest fright is the unknown. We feel powerless.”

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