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US Oil Spill Stokes Fear in Florida

Opposition to offshore drilling grows even though oil slick is still far from Florida

The gulf oil spill is still hundreds of kilometers from Florida, but local businesses worry about the impact it could have on their livelihoods
The gulf oil spill is still hundreds of kilometers from Florida, but local businesses worry about the impact it could have on their livelihoods

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Florida residents fear the oil residue and tar balls that are washing up on beaches of the northern U.S. gulf could soon reach their shores.

The spill from the offshore oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is still hundreds of kilometers from Florida, but local businesses worry about the impact it could have on their livelihoods.

"We're going to have to deal with the pollution that gets here," says Keith Kropf, who lives in Key Largo, south of Miami. "I feel it is going to be here, and it may not be this week or next. But within months."

Kropf and others turned out for a meeting this week with local officials and a representative from BP America, which owns the leaking well.

The spill is still more than 600 kilometers away. Emergency officials say it is too early to  deploy clean-up crews. But the impact, especially on hotels and tourism, is already being felt.

"We're getting a tremendous amount of questions," says Andy Newman with the Florida Keys Tourism Council. "We know that people are concerned. They are going to wait to the last moment to make that reservation, to assure themselves they are not being impacted."

Tourism isn't the only industry that's feeling the pinch. The spill is also damaging the drive to open up Florida's coastline to new oil drilling. Critics of offshore drilling have held protests against BP in several U.S. cities.  

In Florida, officials had been debating a proposal to open new waters to offshore oil drilling. Governor Charlie Crist was a supporter, but now he's changed his mind.

Florida's beaches and wildlife are a draw for tourists.
Florida's beaches and wildlife are a draw for tourists.

"When you see the devastation and the enormity of the size of that thing, it's just unbelievable," says Crist. "And it just wouldn't be the right thing to do, not now, no way."

Crist wants to put the issue to Florida voters later this year. A poll released after the spill shows that 35 percent of Floridians support offshore drilling - down from 61 percent two years ago.

The spill may have solidified the opposition. .

"People come to Florida because of our environment, our ecology," says Skye Stanley, who operates a sport fishing business in Key Largo. "Now that we can see what kind of tragedy can happen because of those oil rigs.  Definitely, I think it would be a great time to take a vote."

Beaches, fishing grounds and other wildlife habitats draw millions of tourists each year. Florida residents say any threat to those resources would hurt business as well as the ecosystem.

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