Tarballs in Florida stoke fears of oil slick spread

Tue May 18, 2010 4:53pm EDT
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By Michael Haskins

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Fears that ocean currents were spreading oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill flared on Tuesday after tar balls turned up in Florida, raising pressure on energy giant BP to capture more of the leaking crude.

In Washington lawmakers pushed forward with efforts to raise companies' liability cap for oil accidents and the Obama administration said offshore drilling was critical to meet U.S. energy needs despite the risks made evident by the spill.

Four weeks after a drilling rig leased by BP Plc exploded and caused a massive oil spill deep in the Gulf, officials have stressed the accident's so-far limited impact on coastal shorelines and wildlife.

But news of the tar balls in Florida raised concerns that the leaked oil's reach was expanding dramatically.

Tests were being done to confirm whether the globs of concentrated oil discovered on the well-known Key West island resort on Monday came from BP's ruptured undersea well as Florida braced for the spill's potential impact on its $60 billion-a-year tourism industry.

"We believe it is unlikely (the tar balls) are from the Gulf oil spill, but we'll know for sure in a couple of days," said Key West Mayor Craig Cates. "While we are concerned about what will happen, we are trying to keep a positive attitude."

If confirmed, it would be the southernmost and easternmost impact reported so far from the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, feared to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident off Alaska as the worst U.S. ecological disaster.

Oil debris and tar balls have been reported in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Miles (kilometers) of protective booms are being used to try to defend the shore.   Continued...

<p>Dr. Erica Miller, a member of the Louisiana State Wildlife Response Team, cleanses a pelican of oil at the Clean Gulf Associates Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Station on Ft. Jackson in Plaquemines Parish, La., May 15, 2010. REUTERS/(U.S. Navy/Justin Stumberg/Handout</p>