Officials Try To Calm Fears In Spill Aftermath

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Sunbathers walk along the beach in Pensacola Beach, Fla. on Aug. 1.

Sunbathers walk along the beach in Pensacola Beach, Fla. on Aug. 1. Local business officials are asking for a substantial federal investment in getting tourists back to the coast after the peak summer season was wiped out by the oil spill. Dave Martin/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dave Martin/AP

The Obama administration is trying to turn a corner on its response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP reached a milestone last week when it achieved a static kill of the blown-out well. And the government is touting a new report that indicates the impact of the spilled oil is diminishing.

Now the focus is shifting to the region's recovery.

As BP was pumping cement down the throat of its crippled well, the White House dispatched former EPA administrator Carol Browner to the coast.

"The good news is there's no more oil leaking. And that's obviously very, very good news. The important thing we want to say to the people of the Gulf and the people of Pensacola, is that while there's no more leaking, we're not leaving."

Browner was back in her native Florida for talks with community and business leaders in St. Petersburg, Panama City and Pensacola.

Pensacola Beach Realtor Robert Rinke came to ask for a substantial federal investment in getting tourists back to the coast after the peak summer season was wiped out by the oil spill.

"We got some oil, it's a problem, we've got to resolve it. We can never let it happen again," he said. "But our biggest issue is all that publicity from all the networks that was hundreds of millions of dollars of negative publicity. We have to have money to counteract that."

Others want tax incentives for travelers to come to the coast. They say a billion-dollar industry is at stake. Most sound ready to get the oil spill behind them.

"We really believe that we've probably got all we're going to get in Pensacola and Escambia County," County Commissioner Wilson Robertson says. "If we could just let the world know that, we'd be in good shape."

Browner agrees and says the administration wants to help.

"The right story to tell is that these waters and these beaches are very, very pretty," she says. "We are going to do everything we can with the microphone, if you will, that we have."

Browner points to a government report out last week that indicates much of the oil is no longer visible in the Gulf.

County Commissioner Gene Valentino of Perdido Key wants more answers. "My real concern remains not the tar balls on the beach, which is ugly and bad and we regret, or the oil on the ocean floor, which we can't see and everyone has forgotten about — but really the toxicity issue."

Government scientists were clear that the long-term impact of the Gulf oil spill is unknown. Browner says monitoring will continue. But she assures the Pensacola group that the water is safe.

"This study suggests not that all of the oil is gone, but there's been a lot of successful efforts to make sure that the oil is being cleaned up, that it is being managed to the best of everyone's ability," she says. "My personal reading of it is that that gives me hope that we have turned a very, very important corner."

Not everyone is willing to turn the corner so fast. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says that early on, BP and federal officials told the local government the oil was not a threat, only to have it wash ashore within days.

"How many times do I get to mislead you, lie to you or whatever before I lose credibility with you? Forgive our skepticism. We did not create this situation; we're having to live with it."

Enid Sisskin with Gulf Coast Environmental Defense shares that skepticism.

"From the very beginning of this spill, it seems that the government has leaped onto putting the best face on this whole mess. They're very likely trying to say, 'Wee — it's OK now, we've done it, we're OK.' "

She says the administration shouldn't be so quick to say "no problem" when the long-term impact is uncertain.

But for many here, the immediate recovery issue is getting the coast back in business. Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Pensacola says come on down, the water's fine.

"Well there's no question that the beaches are clear, the water is safe," he says. "I would have no problem taking my grandchildren to the beach and allowing them to swim in the Gulf."

A test of President Obama's confidence will come next weekend, when the first family vacations in Panama City.



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