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Defying warnings, swimmers still take to oiled Gulf waters

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — George Lanzi and Luba Rudkovskaya, a young couple from New York City, find themselves divided this weekend on a central question facing beachgoers here: to swim or not to swim?

"I'm not going in,'' Rudkovskaya, 27, said from her beach chair a few feet from the surf. "If I hadn't gotten tired, I would have stayed in all day,'' a soaked Lanzi countered from his chair. ``I'm planning to go back in.''

The two faced a dilemma not easily resolved even by local government officials, who are wrestling with how forcefully to warn off the public from swimming in the Gulf.

While recent days found beaches and surf in Pensacola Beach heavily pocked by congealed oil known as tar balls, others unfolded like Friday did: The water seemed clear and the sand only lightly stained by an amber tide line where a light sheen had been.

Images of oiled beaches have sent tourism plunging in the area on the heels of a crucial 10-day stretch that includes Fourth of July and next weekend's Blue Angels air show. Hotels used to being packed for the Fourth holiday still have rooms to sell, and companies that rent vacation homes say bookings are off by as much as 50 percent this summer.

Tourism officials are counting on loyal Panhandle vacationers to help the industry subsist this summer during the oil crisis. They're hoping vacation traditions will die hard in a destination that thrives on repeat visitors.

Sharon Bynum has been taking her four kids -- the youngest is 17 -- to nearby Navarre Beach since they were little. "We always stay at the Regency,'' the Plano, Texas, resident said, referring to the beachfront condo tower behind her. "We always get the same condo.''

On Wednesday afternoon, a light and sporadic sprinkling of tar balls along the sand had her doubting the tradition's future.

"It's hard because this could be the last time we're all here together,'' she said. "I want when my kids have kids, for this to be the place where we all . . . reminisce.''

The state-run Escambia County Health Department, with jurisdiction over Pensacola's sandy-white beaches, on Friday declared all 43 miles of Gulf front to be a swimming risk, an expansion of a health advisory that until Thursday covered just a portion of the county's beaches.

Pregnant women and young children were urged to avoid the beach, and the public was advised against swimming in general. But in comments to reporters, the agency's local director, Dr. John Lanza, said he would ``of course'' swim in the Gulf as long as oil wasn't obviously present in the water or the beaches.

"The water has been affected by the oil. We know that,'' Lanza said. ``One particular spot may be affected more than others. If you really want to go into the water, you're welcome to do that.''

Later he added: "It's something like the surgeon general's warning against smoking. Guess what? People still smoke.''

Lanza said his office was waiting for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to release toxicology results that will determine whether the Gulf waters pose a health risk. While the Florida Health Department tests for dangerous bacteria -- including from human waste -- it's relying on the EPA to pass judgement on the risks posed by oil in the water. The EPA did not respond to requests for comment Friday, and Lanza said he doesn't know when the federal agency will release the test results.

"I don't know why the EPA has waited this long,'' he said.

Waves were more of a worry than oil to Cindy Smith, who brought her family from La Grange, Ga., for a day at the beach. Waves remained aggressive after a week of stormy weather from Hurricane Alex, though a bright sun and clear sky lured hundreds to the sand and surf.

"The water is fine -- it's a little rough, but it's clean,'' Smith said as two of her three children -- Katlyn, 8, and Makayla, 12 -- dried off from their Gulf swims. Added Smith: "I don't feel greasy.''

Chrissy Smith and Randall Lockhart, sweating in their bathing suits, weren't so blasé about an ecological crisis that last week left miles of Pensacola Beach tarred by an oily sludge.

Neon-vested workers prowl the beach with shovels and pool-cleaning nets to scoop up tar balls and oiled sand, while larger machinery plows the beach through the night.

Smith, who works for an environmental firm in Atlanta, and Lockhart, a federal public defender in Pensacola, wondered whether a relatively clean beach really suggested a clean bill of health for beachgoers.

"We can't believe how many people are in the water,'' she said. Added Lockhart: ``Especially kids.''

Tricia Cash, an aerobics instructor in Olympia, Wash., watched as two of her children -- Sophia, 10, and Nathaniel, 9 -- played waist-deep in the clear surf near the city's fishing pier. She saw the vague health warnings as overblown.

"You know what?'' she asked. "If I still see these little fish alive, I'm OK. When the bait fish are all dead, I'm not letting my kids in.''

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