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Florida Keys Beach Tar Balls Attract Widespread Media Attention, But No Confirmation They Are Associated With Gulf Oil Spill

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KEY WEST, Florida -- Travel continues to the Florida Keys, despite reports of oil tar balls discovered on a Key West state park beach.

The discovery of 20 tar balls Monday at Key West's Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is getting widespread national media attention, though the U.S. Coast Guard has yet to confirm their source.

According to the Coast Guard, there is no conclusive evidence the tar balls found at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park are related to the northern Gulf of Mexico Transocean/BP oil spill. The Coast Guard is having the tar balls analyzed by experts to determine their source.

Finding isolated tar balls in Keys waters or on area beaches is not an unusual occurrence, said Keys Mayor Sylvia Murphy. The Keys are located along a busy commercial shipping route and commercial vessels sometimes discharge bilge water that has oil in it. Tar balls can drift into Keys waters from other areas, not just the northern Gulf region.

The Coast Guard is asking the public to inform them of any tar ball sightings, so additional reports are likely.

Meanwhile, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials say the oil is close to, but not yet in, the Loop Current.

As of Tuesday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the southern edge of the oil slick was estimated to be about 20 miles to the north of the Loop Current.

The Gulf Loop Current is a clockwise current that carries water from the Yucatan Channel north into the Gulf of Mexico, then back down south off Florida's west coast, past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf Stream.

It should take about 10 days for any oil to travel almost 450 miles to the vicinity of the Dry Tortugas, according to NOAA oceanographers. The Tortugas chain of islands begins about 70 miles to the west of Key West.

Currently, there are no advisories recommending against travel to the Florida Keys or any other precautions advising visitors and residents not to engage in fishing, diving, swimming or other water sports, according to the Monroe County Health Department. Seafood from Florida Keys waters is safe to eat, officials said.

Federal, state and local environmental and emergency management agencies have met several times to review and modify mitigation strategies if a response to an oil threat is required for the Keys.

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