PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. – Beachgoers in Florida's western Panhandle saw the first warning signs late Tuesday telling them not to swim or fish off of a six-mile stretch of the oil-fouled Gulf of Mexico near the Alabama and Florida state line.
The Escambia County Health Department posted the signs after heavier tar balls and a mousse-like tar substance were reported off Perdido Key, Fla. The warnings stretch from Perdido Key to the Gulf Islands Seashore national park.
It is the first time swimming and fishing has been restricted on any Florida beaches because of the massive spill that began with the April 20 rig blowout 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Tar balls began rolling up on Escambia County beaches from Perdido Key through Pensacola Beach early Friday.
The county warned people not to wade or swim in the water and to avoid any skin contact with oily water or dead sea animals. The health advisory also states that people should not fish in the water or eat fish that have a petroleum odor.
"Young children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and individuals with underlying respiratory conditions should avoid the area," the advisory states.
Officials say the advisories were suggested and that those who violate them would not be fined or punished.
Beach warnings and health postings are sensitive issues in this region, known for its once-pristine beaches. Many depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
Earlier in the day, County Commission Chairman Grover Robinson IV likened swimming in the tarred water to visiting the beach without wearing sunscreen: each has its own risk. He noted that the sands are being cleaned daily.
But Robinson said he warned his son to avoid the tar balls that dot the surf line. Robinson also said he was concerned about toddlers building sandcastles while workers in hazmat suits and latex gloves picked up the tar nearby.
City Council Member John Wu said he fears the beach waters could eventually be restricted or closed. He said restaurants, hotels, bar owners would be devastated.
"It is an odd picture - people in hazmat suits and people out there enjoying the beach," he said.
Doc Kokol, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, said his agency is not involved in beach closures or warnings. Instead, individual county health departments decide whether to post beach advisories.
The presence of a sheen or mousse, not tar balls, is usually the trigger for warnings or closures, he said."
(Tar balls) are a nuisance, but they pose little health risk," Kokol said.