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Fun day at the beach -- but mind the cleanup tractor

PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - At first sight, it looks like a another fun day on a famous Florida beach -- people frolicking in the surf, picking up shells and bronzing themselves under beach umbrellas on sugar-white sands.

Beachgoers walk past patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pensacola Beach, Florida June 4, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano

But then a tractor chugs into view, pulling a sand skimmer to clean up oil tar balls, and the idyllic scene is shattered.

This is Pensacola Beach in northwest Florida, the latest front in a widening war as U.S. authorities try to limit the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.

After soiling wetland wildlife refuges in Louisiana and fouling barrier islands in Mississippi and Alabama, the black pollution tide from the 47-day-old oil spill spreading in the Gulf of Mexico has now reached the famous white beaches of Florida, the “Sunshine State”. Energy giant BP is still struggling to fully contain the leak from its ruptured undersea well.

For now, only gooey tar balls, tar patties and some oil sheen have come ashore in northwest Florida, but local tourism officials are bracing for more pollution impact from the spill on the state’s $60 billion-a-year tourism industry.

On Pensacola Beach, local resident Tracy Mickelson and her father, Bob, are trying to get volunteers to help them lay canvas along the high-tide line to soak up any oil sheen and make it easier to collect tar balls when they hit the beach.

But as they look around on Saturday morning, they’re still waiting for help to arrive.

“I think a lot of people have the ostrich syndrome right now,” Tracy said.

“They’ve heard so much about this in the news and they’re sick of it. The problem is, now is the time to act.”

“I think folks have convinced themselves that the wind is going to come and blow this all away,” said Bob Mickelson, a Pensacola resident for 35 years.

But with winds and water current pushing parts of the huge, fragmented oil slick from the spill toward the Florida Panhandle, forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show the oil threatening shorelines as far east as Freeport in the next few days.


Another sign that all is not as tranquil as it should be on one of Florida’s most renowned beaches? A line of parked TV satellite truck, and around them announcers and TV anchors wearing jackets on top and shorts on the bottom, ready to chronicle the latest skirmish in the oil spill battle.

Chris Slick is passing out fliers, alerting beachgoers to an anti-BP rally to take place on Sunday at a BP gas station in downtown Pensacola.

Candlelight vigils have been scheduled for Saturday night at a handful of churches along Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore, which boasts having “the world’s whitest beaches”.

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson predicts “a huge economic hit” to local tourism, he told CNN on Friday.

John Barrett, who spent 25 years shipping crude oil from rigs to various refineries around the Gulf of Mexico, but now lives locally, said such a catastrophic spill was inevitable given the world’s insatiable thirst for oil.

Now an employee at the Pensacola Beach Pier, Barrett sounds fatalistic as he reminds people it costs $1.25 to walk the 1,400-feet (427-meter) pier that is filling up with fishermen.

“How did you get down here today?” Barrett asks a reporter. “By car? By plane? If you did, then you’re partly to blame. We’re all partly to blame.”

Barrett said business has been down at the shop that rents fishing gear. “I’ve seen a lot of locals come down in the past few days,” Barrett said. “I think they’re trying to get some fishing in before the crud comes.”

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara