Florida health officials change postings for oiled beaches

After hundreds of people complained about swimming with oil at beaches in Escambia County last week, the Florida Department of Health is making modest changes in its system for issuing beach swimming advisories.

All Gulf beaches in Escambia County were closed Saturday along with most beaches in Walton County, according to a DOH website. More than 400 people complained last week to the Escambia County health officials about swimming in oily water, according to multiple news reports.

During a morning briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center, Dr. Mark O’Neill of the Florida Department of Health said the system of providing for “oil impact” advisories to be posted and removed frequently is being replaced. The new system allows advisories to remain posted at beaches “as long as the threat exists, which could be quite some time,” O’Neill said.

He said the choppy surf had made it difficult for people to see oil sheen on the surface of the Gulf. “If something in the future warrants a higher level of concern for human health, we will move in that direction,” he said. “Right now we don’t have any science showing us higher concern than skin irritation or rash.”

A DOH guidance document cites the impact of water pollution on coastal economies. The trigger for issuing advisories is “extensive oil sheen, oil slick, oil mousse or extremely large numbers of tar balls in the water, within 100 yards of the shore, as observed by a designated government professional.”

Beaches are not closed. Rather swimmers are told to avoid entering the water if oil or tar balls are present and to avoid contact with dead or dying fish or animals. Young children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid the area.

The oil impact notice can be removed based on a “local determination” that the beach is no longer impacted by the spill, according to the DOH document.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting brucebritchie@gmail.com.)