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Published: Wednesday, 5/19/2010

Tar balls land on Florida coast; oil closes off 19% of Gulf fishing

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

KEY WEST, Fla. - Park rangers found dozens of tar balls along the beaches of southern Florida and a new computer model forecast black oil ringing the Florida peninsula next week, stoking fears yesterday for the state's tourism industry that fallout from the massive BP oil spill had reached the Sunshine State.

But the Coast Guard urged calm, saying it would not be known until later this week whether the 50 3-to-8-inch flattened tar balls found Monday and yesterday were from the Gulf of Mexico disaster or oil remnants from a passing ship.

Some of the tar balls were shipped to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut to determine if they came from the Gulf spill.

The discoveries stirred concerns for the environment and for Florida's economy, which depends largely on tourism.

The economies of several states took a hit when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it had closed nearly 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

That's up from 7 percent of the Gulf that's been closed to fishing boats since shortly after an offshore oil rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Rig operator BP PLC estimates the well has leaked more than 5 million gallons.

The expanded ban covers an area that starts near the Louisiana coast and moves southeast in a diagonal line. From Mississippi to Pensacola, Fla., the ban starts about 30 miles offshore. It begins moving away from shore at the Florida-Alabama border.

In Washington, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged his agency had been lax in overseeing offshore drilling activities and that contributed to the oil leak.

"There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here," Mr. Salazar told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Describing pending reforms in the Interior Department, Mr. Salazar cited a "collective responsibility" for the spill that included the federal agency he manages, he said.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told the Senate Commerce Committee the growing size and scattershot nature of the oil spill were creating "severe challenges" in containing it and cleaning it up. He called it more complicated than any spill he's ever seen.

"What we're basically trying to do is protect the whole coast at one time," Admiral Allen said.

Mr. Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, promised an overhaul of federal regulations and said blame for the BP spill rests with industry and the government, particularly his agency's Minerals Management Service.

"We need to clean up that house," Mr. Salazar said of the service. While most of the agency's 1,700 employees are reliable and trustworthy, he said, there were "a few bad apples."

President Obama, who has decried the "cozy relationship" between government regulators and the energy industry, has proposed splitting the agency into two parts to separate regulatory duties from those who collect royalty fees from oil and gas companies.

BP said it was collecting about 84,000 gallons a day from a mile-long tube drawing oil from the blown-out well to a ship on the surface. But it cautioned that increasing the flow through the tube would be difficult.

The company is planning to try to "kill" the well and stop the flow by pumping heavy mud into the well shaft this weekend, officials said.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Senate committee it is unclear whether any oil from the spill has reached the powerful Gulf current that would take it to the Florida Keys and possibly beyond.

But if that were to happen, said Ms. Lubchenco, "it would likely be significantly weathered and degraded and possibly diluted" and be in the form of tar balls, not fresh oil. She said tar balls found on the Florida Keys may have stemmed from the explosion and not the flow of oil from the well and pipes at sea bottom.



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