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Florida tar balls not related to gulf spill

| Thursday, May 20, 2010

KEY WEST, Fla. -- News spread quickly Wednesday that tar balls found on beaches in the Lower Florida Keys were not from the Gulf of Mexico spill, a welcome reprieve for residents still fearful about the fate of their vacation mecca.

The development was tempered by a Coast Guard announcement that "a small portion" of Deepwater Horizon's oil slick had entered the gulf's loop current and could reach the Florida Straits in seven or eight days.

Or, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association bulletin reported at day's end, "the oil may get caught in a clockwise eddy in the middle of the gulf, and not be carried to the Florida Straits at all."

It all added to an air of uncertainty about how and when the Sunshine State would grapple with fallout from the gulf catastrophe that could threaten the state's fragile ecosystem as well as its lifeblood industry: tourism.

"That's a concern, and we are monitoring it," Gov. Charlie Crist told The Miami Herald editorial board, adding that state officials still have no fixed date on when spill pollution might hit the Keys, or anywhere else.

The governor said he had been in touch with federal officials, among them White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

He said he could deploy up to 2,500 National Guard members, if need be, under a state of emergency he declared last month for the Florida Panhandle -- and was considering widening the emergency sector to include Monroe County and possibly Miami-Dade.

The latest developments offered a mixed message -- relief on the one hand that the catastrophe had not yet come to Florida, but dread that it still might come.

The Coast Guard outpost in the Keys revealed that it had rushed samples to its lab in Groton, Conn., by Falcon jet from Miami and determined that 50 or so 3- to 8-inch tar balls did not come from the Deepwater Horizon.

It said the findings were conclusive, even as the source of the spill that spawned the tar balls remained unknown.

Responding to criticism that the troubled federal agency that regulates offshore drilling is too cozy with the industry it oversees, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he'll split the Minerals Management Service into three branches.

The reorganization, which has a 30-day timetable, will create the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to develop energy resources, including offshore renewable resources, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which will police offshore operations and protect the environment.

Most importantly, Salazar said, the division of the agency that oversees $13 billion in annual revenue collection will evolve into the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, move to the Interior Department's budget and management division, and be entirely separate from Interior's land and minerals division.

About 700 of the agency's 1,700 employees will move to the revenue collection division. Another 300 will be devoted to environmental safety and enforcement, and the remaining 700 will work on offshore energy leasing plans.

"The employees of the MMS deserve an organizational structure that fits the missions they are asked to carry out," Salazar said. "With this restructuring, we will bring greater clarity to the roles and responsibilities of the department while strengthening oversight of the companies that develop energy in our nation's waters."

The agency had been responsible for regulating offshore drilling as well as leasing tracts on the outer continental shelf and collecting royalties on the oil and gas they produce. It generates more revenue for the federal Treasury than any other agency except the Internal Revenue Service.

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