PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla., June 5, 2010 -- The arrival of oil on the pristine white sands of this beach resort hasn't put a stop to boogie boarding and sand castle building, but it has deeply saddened longtime residents and frequent tourists, who see it as the beginning of the end for this beautiful island paradise.
The head of the government authority that controls Pensacola Beach says the resort will stay "open for business," despite the arrival of the first globs of oil on shore.
Santa Rosa Island Authority executive director Buck Lee insists that the pebble-sized, chemical-infused clumps of oil discovered by beachgoers Friday were "not exactly tar balls, but kind of a mousse-looking-type thing."
Late Friday, Escabmia County officials acknowledged that some of the tar balls were more than seven inches in diameter. One state emergency management official called them "tar patties" and said they were the size of small dinner plates.
More than 300 workers were dispatched with plastic bags and shovels to clean up the beaches, but Friday morning Lee disputed the notion that the tar balls covered the beach.
"You can walk for about 500 yards and then all of a sudden, you'll see little bits and pieces of this for about 20 yards," Lee said of the tar balls. "So it's very sporadic."
But aren't the globs hazardous? Shouldn't the beaches be closed?
"Hell no," says Lee. "Some people say because they might have some kind of chemicals in them, individuals should not pick them up. Do I think I'm going to die if I grabbed a handful of it and threw it in a bucket? No."
"It's like having jellyfish. You just try to stay away from 'em," Lee advises swimmers.
Leaders in Escambia County -- which encompasses Pensacola Beach and much of Santa Rosa Island -- strongly urged beachgoers not to handle the tar balls.
"We want to be clear to individuals that they should not be picking this up," said Grover Robinson, chairman of the county board of commissioners. "If somebody does happen to do it, it certainly should be with gloves on."
But can the tar and oil be avoided?
"Well, they were all over his foot," Debbie Turi said of her 5-year-old grandson, Evan, who stepped on a tar ball at the beach.
"She started crying," said Gerry Turi of his wife.
The couple has lived in Pensacola for 20 years and has never seen anything like it.
'Sticky and Nasty'
Some curious beachgoers stalked the shoreline Friday, despondently scooping up tar balls with small shovels. Others have picked them up with their bare hands.
"It's sticky and nasty," said Bob, a tourist from Nashville who's been coming here for years. "We've tried to wipe it off with the sand. Of course, it doesn't wash off with water."
Robinson suggested people bring baby wipes with them to the beach to help people scrub the oily-chemical mixture off their skin. But he, too, downplayed the risk.
"From time to time, tar balls come on beaches. It happens. People get in contact with them," Robinson said, alluding to memories of tar balls coming ashore in his childhood. "If you don't engage the tar ball, there's no danger to you."
The county department of health will be testing the water and the air, but officials acknowledged the health department does not have the power to order the beaches closed for health reasons. Only the elected county commissioners and the elected county sheriff can do that.