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The Associated Press August 4, 2010, 10:58AM ET

Navy Secretary hears oil spill concerns in Florida

President Barack Obama's point man for the restoration of the Gulf Coast told a standing-room only audience Tuesday night that the region's recovery from the devastating oil spill will rely on a mix of science, research and engaged citizens.

The two-hour talk at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Sciences in St. Petersburg was Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus' fourth in the past week.

"My job is to make sure when this well gets killed, when the initial cleanup is done, that it's not the end of the story," Mabus said. "This is a Gulf Coast issue, but it's a national catastrophe. The nation needs the Gulf healthy."

Mabus heads a presidential commission to create a plan for the long-term recovery of the Gulf. His mission involves economic development, restoration of the ecosystem and environment, assistance to individuals and businesses and public health efforts in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Since the explosion of BP PLC-operated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 172 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf from the broken well, according to government estimates. A 75-ton cap placed on the well in July has been keeping the oil bottled up over the past three weeks.

There has been no oil spotted in the waters or beaches near St. Petersburg. In Florida, tar balls and oil have been confined to the state's westernmost Panhandle.

Those in attendance on Tuesday asked questions on a wide range of issues, from how the oil will affect coral reefs off the Florida Keys to whether the spill will spur the federal government to push for alternative energy solutions. It was one of the best-attended meetings along the Gulf Coast, with some 270 people - possibly because a vast swath of Florida's tourism industry has been affected by the spill, Mabus said.

"Each state has its own unique impacts," he said. "There has not been as much oil coming ashore here, but it's a perception issue here in Florida. It's become a real economic issue, with Florida being so dependent on tourism."

He also noted how many people in St. Petersburg raised concerns about the dispersants that were applied to the gushing oil and what the long-term effects those chemicals may have on people and marine life.

"These dispersants are confounding our detection efforts," said Susan McMillan, a 30-year Florida resident and the founder of a nonprofit group called Protect Our Waters, which was organized in response to the spill.

McMillan said she is curious about who is testing Florida's waters for dispersant levels, if anyone, and whether the chemicals are dangerous to people and marine life.

"We never want our Gulf to be used in a giant Frankenstein experiment again," she said. Mabus tried to assure McMillan that the dispersant tests are happening, and said he would find out how the public can obtain the results. He added that testing and scientific research - some of which is being done at USF's College of Marine Sciences - will be key for the long-term recovery of the Gulf.

Capt. Bob Zales of Panama City - and the president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators - expressed concern over economic recovery of some sectors.

"Our customers have gone other places to fish," said Zales, who wore a gold fish necklace. "We're pretty much going to have to totally rebuild our business. We're going to need a whole lot of help in advertising and campaigns, especially here in Florida."

Zales added that mental health counseling is essential for folks affected by the economic downturn due to the spill.

"It's a very necessary component," he said.

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