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Despite Tar Balls and Health Complaints, Florida Beaches Stay Open

Beaches near Pensacola, Fla., are still open despite tar balls washing up, reports of illnesses of beachgoers and health warnings. Even the EPA chief says she wouldn’t swim there.

At Pensacola Beach and others in Escambia County, Fla., health officials have said that some 400 people reported feeling sick after swimming along the Gulf coast, where the county's Citizen Information Center said that "sporadic tar balls" continue to wash ashore. But in the face of concern about the economic damage that would be caused by beach closings, the beaches remain open despite a warning from Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson that the waters appeared unsafe and an oil impact notice (PDF) posted by the county's health department.

"The beaches are open and ready for business!" declares the Escambia Disaster Response Web page.

For potential beachgoers, the announcement of the oil impact notice issued on July 2 by the Escambia County Health Department offered this warning (PDF):

If individuals see or feel oil products on the beach or in the water – such as an oily feeling on their skin, tar chips/balls that are too numerous to count or are buried in the sand, tar mats, oil mousse or an oil sheen/slick on the water -- they are advised to minimize potential negative health impacts and:

  • Avoid wading, swimming, or entering the water.

It is up to individuals to decide whether to head to the beaches and take the plunge.

At Pensacola Beach in Escambia County, signs advising of the oil impact notice urged beachgoers to avoid swimming altogether, according to pictures of the notice taken by a reporter from Mother Jones.

However, she found that these signs were all too easy to miss. She wrote that she "drove down about 15 miles of beach and saw only two such warnings," although she admitted that she might have overlooked a few because they are "about the size of a sheet of computer paper."

We called the Escambia County Health Department this morning and have not yet received a response.

In the meanwhile, said Brenda Lee of the Escambia County Citizen Information Center, the beaches are staying open and the county is getting ready for the flight demonstration by the Navy's Blue Angels squadron, which is scheduled for this Saturday at Pensacola Beach.

"We have normal opening and closing operations over the Blue Angel weekend," Lee said. "People are still going to the beach."

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