"I've been all over the world; even south Florida. I've seen many pretty places, but this beach is the most beautiful I've ever seen."-- Northeastern clean-up worker, June 4, 2010.
By now the whole world knows that an advance tongue of BP's lake of oil has reached Pensacola Beach. Indeed, it is washing up on beaches along the entire forty-mile length of Santa Rosa Island.
Today we took a leisurely trip along the westernmost half of what used to be known as the "Emerald Coast." We began at Navarre Beach and gradually proceeded, with refreshment stops, all the way to the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. Here's what we found:
1. Navarre Beach Near Normal.
To all outward appearances, Navarre Beach late this morning was unusually crowded for a Friday morning but otherwise normal. Lots of sunbathers, young kids gamboling in the surf, even a surf boarder or two.
Only a close inspection of the waves as they spent themselves on the beach revealed the occasional small, orange tarball. There were not many, even at mid-day. And, most were as small as dime; a very few were the size of a quarter.
The vast majority of tarballs were small, burnt-orange in color, and gooey-soft.We looked particularly for any signs that young swimmers were coming in contact with the oil. We saw none. Everybody seemed to be having a great time.
2. BP Clean-up Workers.
We happened to arrive at Navarre Beach just as three clean-up crews were unloading from a fleet of brand-new oversized white vans. Some of the vans were so new they had only temporary plates.
The vehicles bore license plates from a variety of states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina. From the looks of it, BP has rented every van they could lay their corporate tentacles on throughout the Southeast.
Just for fun, we snapped a photo of a couple of the license plates and mashed them up (below).
These plates are from two of eight vans we saw at Navarre Beach. All were disgorging workers who had been given no protective clothing. After each crew exited a van they gathered together, then headed immediately for the beach.
The crews had shockingly few tools. One or two were armed with a shovel, some with sticks and plastic bags. Most were carrying nothing.
3. Clean-up Crews Under Wraps.
Every time we encountered clean-up crews, we tried to engage them in conversation. Normally, we're pretty good at that. We're a talkative sort, fairly friendly, and even if we do say so ourselves, we've had a lot of experience, from one end of the globe to the other, at getting complete strangers to open up.
Not today. Not with this crowd. We tried talking with several of the workers at several different beaches. Almost all refused to say a word.
Some ignored us. Most merely shook their heads from side to side as if to say, 'No, man. I can't say a word' or 'Don't you get it? I need this job.'
One brave worker did tell us he wasn't "from around here." But he, too, silently shook his head when we followed up by asking where he was from.
It was obvious that all the workers were under strict instructions to talk to no one. Many seemed, frankly, terrified to be approached. One fellow referred us to what he called "the head man." He turned out to be a middle-aged guy with a southern accent and a large paunch hanging over his belt. His hands looked as soft as his belly.
He, too, admitted he wasn't "from here." But he wouldn't say where he came from. When we asked, he silently dug into his pants and, after a short struggle, pulled out a small roll of ten identical thin strips of paper, all bearing the same typed message:
"Here," he said, handing us one of the strips. "You got any questions you call this number."
"Do they know where you're from?" we asked innocently.
On the slip of paper was a Louisiana phone number. If you want to know who we were trying to talk to, give 'em a call.
4. Opal Beach, National Seashore.
At Opal Beach, a few miles down the road, we had much better success talking with two bird watchers and their family. Using a classy spotting scope, they thought they might have identified two Pacific something-or-others -- loons or gulls or whatever -- out over the water. "They're quite rare here," I was assured.
They told me that just minutes before I arrived, clean-up crews had been covering the beach in front of them.
"Then, one of them got a call," the woman said. "We heard him say something about a report of oil at Navarre Beach. They all packed up and went running for their vans. And, poof! they were gone."
In fact, the tarballs at Opal Beach were bigger and much more in evidence than anything we had seen on Navarre Beach. The average size of tarball there was a half-dollar, as one of our new found friends illustrated (up, left).
With every ebb of the surf, dozens of coin-sized black tarballs and larger patties of orange goo remained behind. With every flow, more came ashore.
5. Pensacola Beach.
Pensacola Beach was crowded, too. Partly, perhaps, due to all the national media crews that have descended on us.
Conditions there were worse than at Opal Beach. Tarballs were a bit larger and much more numerous. This didn't stop sunbathers or most swimmers, at least not while we watched.
They should have taken a look at what we saw. A CNN crew member had been handed two tarballs, so she told us, by a 'clam digger' who said he had found them at Navarre Beach. (See photo at the top of this article.) She had placed them in a 16 oz. styrofoam cup.
"But they melted in the heat of the sun," she complained.
A woman standing next to us asked if she could take a picture of the melted tarballs.
"Does this belong to you?" she asked the CNN woman.
For answer, the CNN woman snickered. "It belongs to BP, I guess."
6. Ft. Pickens.
At Ft. Pickens, on the very western edge of Santa Rosa Island, things remained much as they were yesterday. At early afternoon, the V-shaped boom planned to protect Pensacola Bay was still not deployed, although it looked like preparations were underway.
A small crew of workmen were taking a break in the shade of a small bathroom building when we pulled up. Many had been here, they told us, for more than a month. They were employed by a subcontractor of BP's.
These men were outfitted with hazmat suits and safety equipment, although we didn't see any air filter masks.
"They're coming -- tomorrow," one man said. We couldn't be sure, but it sounded as if he was quoting a boss who might have been repeating the same phrase day after day.
These men spoke much more freely than the other clean-up crews we had encountered. We asked how the oil spill was affecting Ft. Pickens. One man from the Northeast answered, "We've got it under control."
"You know?" he added. "I've been all over the world; even south Florida. I've seen many pretty places, but this beach is the most beautiful I've ever seen. Even with the oil."
We who live on Pensacola Beach know he's right. For now. Many of us also fear that soon enough he will be wrong.
BP's oil has now come ashore. It will get worse here, no matter what happens at the wellhead from now through August. The beach can be cleaned, eventually. In the meantime, we'll just have to enjoy what pleasures the beach still can give -- and pitch in to help keep it that way.
More on that last point another day.
add pic minor edit 6-05am