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Bikinis Meet Hazmat Suits as Florida Weighs Closings

A plastic bottle is seen coated in oil on Pensacola Beach
A plastic bottle is seen coated in oil on Pensacola Beach as oil makes its way on shore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A sheen of oil off of Pensacola Beach, a week after tar balls from the BP Plc spill began washing ashore, may force Florida to do the unthinkable: Close beaches.

Government officials must balance potential health dangers from oil arriving on the northwest Florida coast against the prospect that banned beaches would drive away visitors and cripple the state’s $60 billion tourism business.

Their decision so far has been to keep the coastline open even as crews paid by BP work to clean up the muck.

“We are swimming in it, we are lying out right next to it,” said Emily Boswell, 27, a veterinary technician from Pensacola, after spending a day at nearby Pensacola Beach. “Why are there people in hazmat suits and we are in our bikinis?”

State and local officials say there have been no beach closings because the sand and sea remain safe.

“There’s no imminent public health issue to warrant a closure at this time,” Nancy Blum, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee, said in an interview.

Robert McKee, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, lawyer representing clients suing BP, said it’s “a significant probability” that the state will have to start closing beaches. He compared the situation to “Jaws,” the 1975 movie based on the book by the same name in which a killer shark terrorizes an island resort town. The fictional town’s mayor hushes up the danger to avoid scaring away tourists.

‘Shark in Waiting’

The oil is like “the shark in waiting,” he said. “If they give the warnings, they destroy their economy, and if they don’t give the warnings, they are complicit with the cause of the harm.”

Pensacola resident Terri Holley, 50, said she’s now staying away from the Gulf waters.

“I wouldn’t swim in it,” Holley, who works in marketing, said yesterday during a rally against BP in downtown Pensacola. “It kills me to see babies and pregnant women in that water.”

Government officials say they are monitoring the arrival of oil that has spewed from the BP well since a drilling rig exploded on April 20. The damaged well is gushing 20,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, twice as much as previously estimated, a team of government scientists said yesterday.

Perdido Key

Florida state health officials issued warnings on June 8 that swimmers at Perdido Key, near the Alabama border, enter the water at their own risk because tar balls were too numerous to avoid. County officials said all beaches remained open and that the advisory doesn’t ban swimming.

Pensacola Mayor Mike Wiggins told reporters on June 9 that a flyover he did of the area the previous day showed an oil sheen that could “easily” reach the coast as soon as today.

Larry Johnson, a Pensacola city councilman, said that while beaches “are safe as of now,” he worries about children who might not know to stay away from the balls and clumps of oil.

Closing beaches would be “economically devastating,” said Robert Rinke, president of Levin and Rinke Resort Realty in Pensacola Beach.

“That would be a last resort,” he said in an interview. “Officials would do everything they could to keep the beaches open as long as there wasn’t a public-safety issue.”

Florida environmentalists such as Manley Fuller said closings may be inevitable.

‘Forced To’ Close

“Obviously they don’t want to do that, but they may be forced to,” Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said in an interview

Even with the beaches open, charter fishermen, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that rely on tourists are seeing sales plummet in what is supposed to be their busiest time of the year.

“It’s like the oil is holding everybody hostage,” Johnson, the city councilman, said.

The spill could put 195,000 Floridians out of work and cost the state $10.9 billion should the area that includes Pensacola lose half its tourist traffic, according to estimates by Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

While the tar balls already on the beaches aren’t highly toxic, the oil spreading through the Gulf and chemical dispersants used by BP will affect Florida’s shores for decades, said Richard Snyder, head of environmental diagnostics and bioremediation at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

‘Into The Future’

“This will cascade into the future and be with us for years,” he said in an interview.

Marty Hurd, a 29-year-old waitress from Prescott, Arkansas, said that’s why she brought her three sons, ages 2 through 8, to Pensacola Beach now.

“We brought our kids down here to see the ocean because they might not get to see it again for a long time,” Hurd said in an interview yesterday. “If the oil comes in here, it’s going to ruin it.”

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