One year after Gulf oil spill, Florida tourism is up but questions remain

All-terrain vehicles still rumble across the eight-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach each morning, driven by workers looking for tar balls. One year after crude from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion reached Florida’s shores, cleanup crews are still unearthing the sticky hardened bits of oil.

“They’re about the size of your finger nail,” said Buck Lee, a lifelong Pensacola native and executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which oversees beach projects.

While the oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, it wasn’t until June 4 of the same year that tar patties made landfall on Pensacola. The plumes of oil sheen slowly drifted across nearly 200 miles of the Panhandle’s beaches — from quaint beach towns like Watercolor and Seaside in Walton County to the spring-break metropolis of Panama City Beach.

Though much of the goop has been skimmed from the water and plucked from the sand, the region still pays the price of one of the nation’s most devastating oil spills. Workers and mechanical sifting machines continue to remove unsightly tarball specs from the Panhandle’s pristine beaches, many business owners are still fighting to recoup lost profits from BP and the future impact on the rest of the economy and environment may take years to truly learn.

For now, there’s some positive news: Visitors are returning to the Panhandle beaches in record numbers and spending at hotels and storefronts that were hurting for cash last summer.

“What a year it’s been,” said Lee, who spent the last year in countless conference calls and meetings with BP and federal officials. “Its been terrible, but finally things are finally looking up.”

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