Oil spill: Is Gulf safe for swimming?
posted by Kimberly Blair on pnj.com
The Escambia County Health Department lifted a health advisory on Pensacola Beach on Friday on the advice of a beach official and against the advice of a federal environmental official.
But the advisory was not lifted for Gulf Islands National Seashore's Fort Pickens beach, immediately west of Pensacola Beach or Johnson Beach on Perdido Key.
And hours after the Pensacola Beach advisory was lifted, the health department asked for state approval to issue an oil-impact advisory that leaves the decision to swim in the Gulf of Mexico up to the discretion of individual beachgoers.
The signs would be posted on 41 of the 43 miles of Escambia County beaches — from the Florida-Alabama line to just west of Portofino Beach — impacted by oil.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to put decontamination stations along the beach, possibly as early as this weekend.
These moves send conflicting signals about how safe it is to swim in the Gulf of Mexico as the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill broadens.
Dr. John Lanza, director of Escambia County Health Department, said the reason for leaving the decision up to beachgoers on whether to swim is because the oil situation on the beach is "very dynamic."
"We have a situation that changes from one hour to the next, from one tide to the next, from wave to wave, from one wind direction to another," he said.
Lanza said this ever-changing environment is something "we're going to face for weeks or months in the future."
The oil impact signs would be posted indefinitely and warn beachgoers that oil has washed up on the beaches. But the impact advisory would not prohibit people from going swimming as the health advisory for Pensacola Beach issued from Wednesday to Friday morning did.
Similar to the health advisory, the impact advisory would warn beachgoers to avoid touching oily product on the beach and in the water, and it would advise them leaving the beach and seeking medical help if they experience respiratory problems.
So far, 400 people have sought medical care for upper or lower respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and eye irritation after trips to Escambia County beaches, Lanza said.
Lanza said he lifted the health advisory on Pensacola Beach early Friday on the advice of W.A. "Buck" Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority executive director. Lee said he made the recommendation based on a visual inspection.
By 10 a.m. on Friday, the double red flags prohibiting beachgoers from the water were replaced with yellow flags.
"We're flying the yellow flags. And that means you need to be careful where you step," Lee said. "Just be careful and have a good time."
But oil chips, tar balls and submerged oil slicks and the odor of petroleum still were present.
And people complained about getting a petroleum jelly-like substance on them from sand that was tainted brown.
Swimmers who did venture into the water questioned whether it was really safe to wade, swim and play in the Gulf, especially when they had to walk through a line of tar balls and stay clear of skimmers scooping up oil just 25 and 50 feet from the shore.
"I only went into the water up to my ankles. That's as far as I wanted to go," said Joe Chambers, 28, of West Pensacola as he scrubbed off oily residue from himself and his son, Ethan, 4, in the public showers at Casino Beach. "It doesn't smell like the beach. It smells like a gas station. There are no fish in the water. There's nothing alive in the water. I don't know how public officials can just look at the water and make a call to reopen it for swimming."
Carol Doster of Grand Isle, Miss., said her son Dallas, 12, was frightened by the oil that streaked his legs and arms after a five-minute swim in the Gulf on Friday. "It won't rub off," Doster said.
She said the two were not going to get in the water again.
No tests run
Lanza said the health department did not test the water or sand samples before lifting the health advisory. He did send out health department employees to look at the water before they covered up the health advisory signs.
Dick Snyder, director of the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation at the University of West Florida, began conducting water samples May 3 on Pensacola Beach every Tuesday and Thursday because beach and health officials were only doing visual assessments.
What you can't see in the water may be more dangerous than what you can see, he said.
"That's why we thought we had to start looking for dissolved oil," he said.
It can't been seen and it poses health risks. So far it's not been found in the surf zone on the beach. But water samples taken Thursday in the surf zone, where most people swim, at Casino Beach, did reveal small amounts of alkanes, hydrocarbon molecules found in oil, he said.
Small amounts are not harmful. But the heavier, complex molecules in the tar balls, "are toxic," Snyder said.
Lanza also lifted the advisory against the advice of Charlie Fitzsimmons, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deputy branch chief for Florida.
Fitzsimmons had a team conducting water testing on the beach Thursday and Friday. He expects results from those tests — the first ones since oil landed on Pensacola Beach — early next week.
"My recommendation to the Santa Rosa Island Authority was to keep the beach closed until we can get a better handle on the actual material out here and to get more of it up," Fitzsimmons said.
On Friday, Lee dismissed any notion that the water is unsafe, and said with the daily and hourly changes in water conditions on the beach, he can't wait three days for results of water testing to decide to close or open the beach to swimming.
Fitzsimmons said he cannot make the call to close the beach. That's why he's having the decontamination stations set up, which are more sophisticated than the wash stations the Island Authority recently set up, he said.
"The (cleaning) material is in a package form that will more greatly assist removing tar balls from the bottom of feet and hands," he said. "Our plan is to assist the health department and island authority to make it easier to manage this situation."
But he cautioned beachgoers, especially those with small children and babies: "My recommendation, whether it's for a baby or not, I would not walk through the tar — and it's all over the place, especially now with the fine little balls that are like pencil erasers. It's hard to see them. It's not like before when we had larger pieces, 6 inches in diameter. This makes it harder for the general public to avoid the oil."
DON'T GO IN THE WATER!!!
DON'T TOUCH THE OIL!!!
Be seeing you.
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