Tar balls washing up in growing numbers on Fla. Panhandle, Ala. beaches; as many as 1 per foot

GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. (AP) — Waves of gooey tar blobs were washing ashore in growing numbers on the white sand of the Florida Panhandle and nearby Alabama beaches Friday as a slick from the BP spill drifted closer to shore.

Spotters who had been seeing a few tar balls in recent days found a substantially larger number starting before dawn on the beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and nearby areas, a county emergency official said. The park is a long string of connected barrier islands near Pensacola.

Keith Wilkins from Escambia County emergency management said tar patties were pretty thick on parts of the beach, as much as one every foot.

Small gobs of reddish brown oil washed up in the surf for the first time in nearby Gulf Shores, Ala., on Friday morning and a petroleum smell tinged the air.

Officials have said it is inevitable oil will eventually wash up on Panhandle beaches after a slick from the Deepwater Horizon spill was spotted about 9 miles offshore this week. The edge of the spill had moved to four miles off the coast Thursday, Gov. Charlie Crist said after a flyover.

Crist said the news of Friday's growth in tar balls was "very disturbing."

"Obviously, it's not the kind of news that we want to hear," Crist said on CNN's "American Morning."

Escambia County emergency officials has been preparing for the oil by shoring up miles of boom. The county plans to block oil from reaching inland waterways, but left its beaches unprotected because they are too difficult to shield and easier to clean up.

In Gulf Shores, Ala., the goo was isolated to a few areas, but an oil smell permeated the breeze.

"I really smelled it down there," said Jennifer Powell, combing the beach for shells with her husband. "It was like it was burning my nose a little bit."

The Powells, from Russellville, Ky., had planned to return to the beach later this summer, but now they're not sure they want to come back.

"You won't be able to get in the water, and it's going to get all over you and all," she said. "I don't think I want my kids in that."

Cleanup crews were nowhere to be seen at the public beach.

Wendi Butler, 40, who lives on Perdido Bay , was walking on a public beach at Gulf Shores and saw clumps of oil tar that she described as looking like burnt caramel. She said it smelled like the jet fuel exhaust of a landing strip.

"I know, my ex-husband was in the Air Force. He would come home from work every day smelling like this. You don't smell the beach breeze at all."


Associated Press writer Jay Reeves contributed from Gulf Shores, Ala.