Life by the slick: Pensacola locals forced to adapt to the oil leak

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The clean-up crew works in 12-hour shifts along the beach, moving from tent to tent and picking up the oil spots and debris they find along the way. The tents stand about 100 yards from one another, and due to heat index and weather conditions, the workers can only work 15-minute shifts before retreating to the tent to rehydrate and stay in the shade for another 45 minutes. Workers get paid $15 an hour to do this, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.


None of the workers can comment on their duties, however. They have been forbidden to do so, and a quick attempt to speak with two workers on an ATV confirms this.


“Can you talk about the work at all?”


One of the workers shakes his head. “Sorry, man. I can’t. We’re not allowed.”


Buses transport them in and out of the area every day while bulldozers and all-terrain vehicles sometimes drive by. At night, other workers will drive around the beach on ATVs with flashlights, looking for turtles and other animals. If it weren’t for the oil, all of this would seem like a large public works project.


The most telling evidence of the spill's effect, however,  is what's not here: people. The ones who chose to come out today sit on towels and play games, read paperbacks, no one going very deep into the water due to the red flags posted by the lifeguard towers. But there should be more of them, and the difference in attendance volume has not gone unnoticed.


“The beach itself is only a quarter full right now,” McNair said. “Usually you can’t take two steps without walking into someone.”


Despite the drop, people on the beach still seem to be making the most of it. Jordan Katsarakis, a Birmingham native, plays corn hole with some friends on the beach ten yards from the nearest clean-up tent.


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“I think they’re doing a pretty good job. They had about 30 guys out here last night. It looks pretty good right now,” Katsarakis said. “I’m worried about the economy. This is going to hurt everybody.”


Beaches have always been one of the state's biggest attractions; having them destroyed by the oil would be almost as devastating as losing both Disney World and Universal Studios in an earthquake, or if the strip clubs in Tampa suddenly imploded. The morning after the beach’s Fourth of July fireworks celebration, for example, the local papers noted the lack of people on the beach over the weekend. And if visitors continue avoiding the beach for fear of the oil, that could be disastrous for the numerous companies that make their living from the tourists.


A report on July 6 confirmed that tar balls had been found at every point of land touching the Gulf of Mexico, including Texas. Here in Tampa and St. Petersburg, both of which have so far gone mostly untouched by the oil, an air of dread has started to hang over the beaches. The tourist bureaus of St. Petersburg and Clearwater haven’t missed a beat, either, replacing their billboard ads sporting mermaids and old dive suits with new ones of clear beaches and the tag line "No Fear It's Clear Over Here" in capital letters.


The last time a major oil spill occurred in the vicinity was in August 1993, when three vessels collided at the entrance to Tampa Bay. The collision left more than 300,000 gallons of heavy oil and another 33,000 gallons of jet fuel in their wake. Business suffered, wildlife perished and no one could walk on the beaches for weeks without having to purchase new shoes afterwards.


In Pensacola, however, new shoes may be the least of everyone’s problems. The hard times have already started for everybody. With the stigma of polluted water always present, the business owners have to do their best to remind their customers that they are still open and in need of their patronage. The restaurants and bars closest to the Gulf to Mexico advertise food and drink specials with banners that can be seen from other side of the beach.


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“One of the first questions we get asked is, ‘How’s the water?’” Jonathon Stephens, an employee at Key Sailing, said. “People have been tipping me because they feel sorry.”


Unlike the businesses facing the Gulf, Key Sailing shares its oceanfront property facing the sound, which has not yet been exposed to the oil pouring into the Gulf. Despite that advantage, business has been hit just as hard over here. Stephens pointed to the company’s numerous jet skis and pontoon boats docked in the waters. Normally, on a beautiful weekend like this, all of those vehicles would be out in the water. Instead, they sit unused.


“Business is getting bad,” added Kirk Newkirk, the owner of Key Sailing. “I’ve dealt with hurricanes and storms before. Never thought I’d have to deal with an oil spill.


“We’ve been steady but work has been down,” Stephens said. “Last year was fantastic, but this year we keep dropping more and more.”


Sitting in the shade looking at the sound, Newkirk stated he does have hope things will get better. He has been speaking with county officials to use his bigger boats and aid in the clean-up attempts at sea. If the fear of oil wasn’t bad enough, the active storm weather in the Gulf this season has also hampered attempts by the workers to get into boats and try to head off the oil before it reaches the shore.


“As long as the locals know the sound is still clean, we should be fine. If the water gets shut down over here, though, we’ll have to shut the door,” Newkirk said. “I plan on being here as long as I can. I’ve got an obligation to these younger guys. I can’t tell them, ‘Sorry, go on home.’”


Neither can anyone else living or working here. A BP press release stated the cost of the response amounts to $3.12 billion, including containment and claims paid, as of July 5. But the oil hasn’t stopped leaking yet, and with no sure-fire solution yet found, it remains to be seen what life by the water will be like in the coming months.


Looking into the surf, McNair spots some paper floating in the water. She reaches down and pulls a wet $20 bill from the water.


“Look at that,” she said, holding up the money. “BP is sending money to get people to go to the beach.”

A water tower on Interstate 10 proclaims that Pensacola is home to “Florida’s Most Beautiful Beaches.” With the BP oil leak fast approaching the triple digits and no permanent solution in sight, one has to wonder how long that claim will remain true. But for those living and working in the area, there's no choice but to adapt.

The Pensacola beaches have a reputation for being beautiful and crowded. On a recent Saturday afternoon, both appear to be holding true; white caps crest and fall in the clear water while beachgoers sunbathe and play football. It’s sunny, warm and picturesque, only now the scene also features workers in reflective jackets, hats and khakis moving up and down the beach.

It would be a typical day at the beach, if the beach didn’t sit next to the Gulf of Mexico. At the moment, however, the beach and the surf do not show any signs of oil slicks. A few days earlier, swimmers emerged from the ocean water with streaks of oil on their bodies, but now most of the evidence of oil pollution appears in the sand and sidewalks. Black oil specks, varying in size from doll buttons to charcoal briquettes, now appear in connect-the-dot patterns beside the beach towels and umbrellas.

Although things seem fine, Christy McNair, a Pensacola resident and frequent beach visitor, is not pleased. She stands in the sand next to a stick covered in oil and looks at the water.

“I’m really pissed because this is my home. The first time I went I expected huge oil slicks,” McNair said. “Having to go out and step in the oil makes me angry.”

Further up the beach from McNair, several clean-up crew members in khakis, day-glow vests and hats stand in the shade of a tent, sipping water and resting before going back on patrol. The results of their recent attempts sit in clear plastic bags several yards in front of the tent, which everyone stays clear of.

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