HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Swimming bans were lifted Thursday on the final beaches contaminated by oil, as the Coast Guard tried to find the ship that dumped the fuel off the Florida coast.
The area's worst oil spill in at least a decade contaminated 15 miles of beach. The oil had apparently not injured any wildlife, but the long-term environmental effects are undetermined, Coast Guard Commander Richard Ferraro said. Sea turtles about to hatch were endangered.
Coast Guard investigators boarded ships Wednesday in Miami and Port Everglades to try to determine which crew dumped the oil. They planned to board more ships Thursday.
The discovery of the oil on Tuesday prompted the closure of all beaches along the 15-mile stretch. Some were reopened to swimming Wednesday, the rest Thursday, with officials replacing the outright ban with yellow caution flags to tell swimmers things could still be messy.
''There are no toxins in the oil - it's just an inconvenience but not hazardous,'' Lt. Joe Taylor of the Hollywood Fire Rescue/Beach Safety unit said Thursday.
The oil did not come ashore as a slick, but as small globules and on seaweed and other debris. Twenty tons of oil-soaked debris had been collected by Wednesday, with much more to come, officials said.
Ferraro's investigators took oil samples from about a dozen recently arrived ships, looking for a match to the dumped oil.
''Every oil has a unique fingerprint,'' said Brad Benggio, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist and a leader of the investigation. For example, he said, each ship's oil contains traces of nickel and other metals.
Investigators also are tracking down ships that recently left South Florida or passed off its coast, Ferraro said. If found, the guilty crew and the ship's owner could face criminal prosecution.
Volunteers have rushed to protect thousands of green and loggerhead sea turtles about to hatch at John U. Lloyd Beach State Recreation Area near Hollywood.
Oil-covered seaweed could block the hatchlings' path to the ocean. About 50 nests, each containing about 110 eggs, are expected to hatch within the next week, with 150 nests expected to hatch in the next month. The eggs were buried in sand by their mothers about 20 yards from the water.
Tim Barry, a Miami stockbroker, and girlfriend Grace Yan, who was visiting from Los Angeles, used garden rakes to clear 10-foot wide paths in front of the nests.
Their hands and clothes were covered with black goo as they raked in the hot, humid weather. Sweat poured from their faces.
''We almost passed out,'' Barry said. ''We had to go up to the road and hitchhike to the (snack bar) for drinks.''
Angelo Gallo, who owns a pizza parlor on Hollywood's boardwalk, said the oil spill was hurting his business as he pointed to the stretches of vacant sand outside his front window.
''Fortunately, this is a slow time of year, but it is usually more crowded than this,'' he said.
On the Net:
Coast Guard: http://www.uscg.mil
Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau: http://www.sunny.org