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Locals overwhelmed by eight-mile gush of oil arriving on Pensacola Beach

PENSACOLA BEACH - Streamers of chocolate-colored mats of oil washed up along an eight-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach early Wednesday, presenting what state officials said was the worst show of crude on shore from the gusher 120 miles away.

"It's pretty ugly. There's no question about it," said Gov. Charlie Crist, who arrived at the beach expecting to see tar balls, not pools of sticky goo. "We don't want to take 'the sky is falling' attitude about this. We want to clean it up and stay after it...and we will."

Crist in Pensacola 036Crist in Pensacola 033Just a week ago, Crist walked the same sands along the Pensacola Beach pier with President Barack Obama as they discussed the federal response to the clean-up effort.

This time, Crist was greeted by dozens of clean-up workers, dressed in white haz-mat suits and yellow boots, carrying rakes and shovels and plastic bags as they scooped up the mousse-like tar mats before they sunk into the once-white sand.

Despite a faint odor, a couple dozen sunbathers watched as workers snaked along the sand with their shovels and rakes, occasionally resting under tents to sip water.

But for Buck Lee, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Island Authority, the clean-up effort was too little too late.

"It's pitiful," he said. "We need machines."

He urged the governor to demand that the Coast Guard's unified command center in Mobile, dispatch front-end loaders, and heavy-duty equipment to scoop up the tar mats before it sinks into the sand.

Department of Secretary Mike Sole said the machines were available but just needed to be called to the scene. He planned to make the call immediately, and urge them to also bring in road graders that could more quickly do the clean-up.

"It's worse than I expected," Sole said, adding however, that the beach was still safe for the beach goers. "It's still pretty weathered oil." By mid-afternoon, the Escambia County health department issued a health advisory, warning people to stay away from the toxic substance.

Crist arrived at the beach after an aerial tour of Perdido Bay and the shoreline with Sole, U.S. Coast Guard Commander Joe Boudrow, Florida National Guard General Douglas Burnett and environmental activist Phillipe Cousteau.

From the Blackhawk helicopter, orange ribbons of oil could be seen four miles from Pensacola Beach and mats of it dotted the water, like a field of mis-fired fluorescent Frisbees on a vast field of green.

Crist and his company said they were heartened by the appearance of several skimming boats, some carrying boom to collect the water. But their mood changed when the Blackhawk helicopter they rode landed across the street from the beach.

"I didn't think it was going to be quite like this on the beach," Cousteau said. "We saw tar balls on the beach a few weeks ago. I expected that here. But it looks like it's thicker, more viscose. I saw this in Grand Isle (Louisiana) three weeks ago."

 He said he was encouraged that as the oil arrived, so did the clean-up crews. "But this is something that people need to realize is very serious situation and that Florida is not exempt from the crisis."

 Dennis Takahashai-Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, who was traveling with the governor's party, said experience told him that crews must move fast if clean-up of the toxic mousse is going to be effective. He was commissioner of environmental conservation for the state of Alaska during the Exxon Valdez oil crisis.

 "The time to be able to get it off the surface is right away before it really gets set in," he said. "And this is the incredible, Florida powdery beach and the two don't go to together very well."