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Pensacola readies for Gulf oil spill fallout

Florida's Panhandle near Pensacola was on track Wednesday to get the state's first hit of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, perhaps later this week, and had 20,000 feet of boom in place to block it from damaging precious wetland.

Bad weather made it difficult to determine when precisely the Deepwater Horizon's oil spill would reach the shores, said Escambia county spokeswoman Sonya Daniel.

"At this point, we still don't have any oil on our shores," she added. "We have done our local booming strategy."

Instead, she reported that aerial tracking on Tuesday detected an oil sheen 9.5 miles off the Escambia County coastline. Then midday Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist's office reported a "concentration of tar balls" was detected about 10 miles off the county's coastline, but still predicted "no large impacts" to the state before the weekend.

Of first concern, Daniel said, was environmentally sensitive wetlands along the intracoastal waterways, notably the Perdido and Pensacola passes, in and around Escambia County.

In stages across the past 30 days, federal, state and local governments have cooperated in placing 20,000 feet of multicolored boom, with more nearby on an as-needed basis.

Crist's emergency operations report update said it had a quarter-million feet of boom deployed in Florida. It put the primary oil plume from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill at 35 miles from Pensacola, citing the "oil plume model" from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The plume was 325 miles from St. Petersburg, it said, "with noncontiguous sheens and scattered tar balls closer."

The state also asked the public to be on watch for oil along Florida's coastline and to report sightings to 1-877-2-SAVE-FL (1-877-272-8335) or by dialing #DEP from most cellphones.

It also noted that forecasts of increased winds and seas this week across the northern-central Gulf of Mexico gave a 50 percent chance or better of showers and thunderstorms through Friday, which could hamper surface oil recovery operations.

The catastrophe crept closer to the Sunshine State as efforts to stop the 44-day-old Deepwater Horizon oil spill hit a snag at 5,000 feet below the surface.

A special diamond-edged saw got stuck in a thick pipe, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters in a midmorning briefing. The saw was meant to cleanly sheer off a piece of the riser and permit engineers using a robot to cleanly attach a "top cap'" over the leak.

Use of a cruder saw would require a less tightly sealed "top hat" over the leak, a move that could slow the spill but not stop it.

In Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama said that regardless of the cause of the Deepwater Horizon accident on April 20, deep water drilling was always risky.

"The catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf right now may prove to be a result of human error -- or corporations taking dangerous short-cuts that compromised safety,'' he said in excerpts of prepared remarks to be delivered at Carnegie Mellon University. "But we have to acknowledge that there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the Earth -- risks that are bound to increase the harder oil extraction becomes."

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