US oil spill: Beach life under threat

By Madeleine Morris
BBC News, Florida

image captionPensacola's beach is still attracting plenty of tourists

The people of Pensacola pride themselves on their soft white sand beaches.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock here every year to surf, swim and sunbathe. But this season, the coastline is less pristine than the locals would like.

Globules of thick brown tar have started washing up on shore. Some are as small as a coin, others are as big as a doormat.

Teams go out every day to clear away the oil, but they cannot brush away the anger of local residents and business owners whose livelihoods depend on these white sands.

"We live off these four or five months in the summer that's how I make a living, but it's gone," says Dave Bohanan, who owns a burger restaurant on Pensacola Beach.

image captionDave Bohanan is among the locals who believe things will get worse for them

"My sales are down at least 10% already. And it will get worse."

Kellis Williams is taking a walk along the beach with his camera, taking pictures of any tar balls that have washed up on the shore.

He processes credit-card transactions for hotels in the area and also says that despite the oil only coming onto the beaches in the last couple of days, he is feeling the pinch.

"It's already an economic disaster," he says. "My clients have been getting cancellations left right and centre."

Dolphin worry

Tourism is Florida's number one industry.

Every year 80 million people make their way to the beaches and theme parks of the Sunshine State. It generates $60bn annually, and provides employment for millions of people.

Scientists are predicting that within weeks the oil from the ever-growing slick will move into an ocean system known as the loop current.

That could move the crude around the Florida Keys and onto the east coast of the state, having a potentially disastrous effect on the tourism industry.

For the time being, however, Florida's beaches remain open to the public. And in Pensacola on Sunday plenty of people were taking the opportunity to cool off in the water.

Heather Pardue took her three young daughters for the day. As a local, she says she spent every summer on the sands of Pensacola's beaches. She brought her children this time around so they could take photographs - in case the sand is irrevocably changed.

"It's hard to believe that my kids won't get to see this [while] growing up the same as I did when I was growing up," she said.

Ms Pardue was also sceptical about BP's promises to fully restore the Gulf of Mexico to its natural state.

"You can't fix what's already been done. The animals, the dolphins that have been affected. We have boats that chase the dolphins and I don't think BP can fix that damage."

'Prehistoric' BP

A handful of protesters were also out on in the sunshine on Sunday.

Their hand-painted placards brandished in front of a BP service station drew plenty of supportive honks from passing traffic.

image captionThe local BP garage is a popular place for protesters

Organiser Chris Slick says BP's efforts to clean up Pensacola's white sands are falling short.

"BP has sent 380 people out there with rakes and shovels. That's prehistoric," he says angrily.

"That's what they used 2,000 years ago to clean things up. We want people to take the $6bn dollars they make in profit every quarter and we want them to hire whatever technology, whatever company it takes to clean the beaches off."

It was certainly still possible to pick up small tar balls on Pensacola's main beach over the weekend.

Locals are very keen to show the city is still open for business. But with the gusher still continuing, albeit at less of a rate than before, Pensacola like many of Florida's tourist towns, is at the beginning of a long road.