Published: May 20, 2010 10:32 AM EDT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - An outer edge of the massive Gulf of Mexico

oil spill has reached a powerful current that could take it to

Florida and beyond, according to government scientists.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said

Wednesday that a small portion of the slick from the blown-out

undersea well had entered the so-called loop current, a stream of

faster moving water that circulates around the Gulf before bending

around Florida and up the Atlantic coast. Its arrival may portend a

wider environmental catastrophe affecting the Florida Keys and

tourist-dotted beaches along that state's east coast.

Even farther south, U.S. officials were talking to Cuba about

how to respond to the spill should it reach the island's northern

coast, a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

Florida's state meteorologist said it will be at least another

seven days before the oil reaches waters west of the Keys, and

state officials sought to reassure visitors that its beaches are

still clean and safe. During a news conference, David Halstead, the

director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, showed

off a picture of a Coppertone bottle on a beach.

"What's the only oil on the beaches? Suntan oil," Halstead

said.

Tar balls found earlier in the Florida Keys were not from the

spill, the Coast Guard said Wednesday. Still, at least 6 million

gallons have already poured into the Gulf off Louisiana since the

April 20 explosion of an offshore oil rig that killed 11 workers

and led to the spill, the worst U.S. environmental disaster in

decades. The Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons in

Alaska in 1989.

Tar balls have washed ashore as far east as Alabama, and

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared Wednesday that heavier oil was

now soiling his state's coastal marshes. Earlier waves of the slick

had begun as a thin sheen before the thicker stuff starting washing

ashore this week.

The governor, inspecting the Mississippi Delta by boat, swept a

fishnet through water, holding up a chocolate-thick ooze. The delta

region is home to rare birds, mammals and a wide variety of marine

life in marshy wildlife refuges and offshore islands.

Billy Nungesser, president of coastal Plaquemines Parish, La.,

said the oil "has laid down a blanket in the marsh that will

destroy every living thing there."

In Washington, environmental groups criticized how BP PLC, the

oil giant that operated the Deepwater Horizon rig, has handled the

response, and urged the government to take to take greater control

of the situation.

"Too much information is now in the hands of BP's many lawyers

and too little is being disclosed to the public," Larry Schweiger,

president of the National Wildlife Federation, told the House

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The Gulf of Mexico

is a crime scene and the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of

assessing the damage."

BP has received thousands of ideas from the public on how to

stop the oil gusher, but some inventors are complaining that their

efforts are being ignored.

Oil-eating bacteria, bombs and a device that resembles a giant

shower curtain are among the 10,000 fixes people have proposed to

counter the growing environmental threat. BP is taking a closer

look at 700 of the ideas, but the oil company has yet to use any of

them.

"They're clearly out of ideas, and there's a whole world of

people willing to do this free of charge," said Dwayne Spradlin,

CEO of InnoCentive Inc., which has created an online network of

experts to solve problems.

BP spokesman Mark Salt said the company wants the public's help,

but that considering proposed fixes takes time.

"They're taking bits of ideas from lots of places," Salt said.

"This is not just a PR stunt."

BP succeeded in partially siphoning away the leak over the

weekend, when it hooked up a mile-long tube to the broken pipe,

sending some of the oil to a ship on the surface. And the company

said Wednesday it hopes to begin shooting a mixture known as

drilling mud into the blown-out well by Sunday.

The "top kill" method involves directing heavy mud into

crippled equipment on top of the well, then aiming cement at it to

permanently keep down the oil. Even if it works, it could take

several weeks to complete.

If it fails, BP is considering a "junk shot," which involves

shooting knotted rope, pieces of tires and golf balls into the

blowout preventer. Crews hope they will lodge into the nooks and

crannies of the device to plug it.

About 70 BP workers are taking more suggestions at a tip line

center in Houston. The company plans to test one idea from Kevin

Costner, the "Waterworld" and "Field of Dreams" actor who has

invested more than $24 million on developing a centrifuge that can

be dropped into the slick and separate the water from oil, storing

the petroleum in tanks.

"It's like a big vacuum cleaner," said Costner's business

partner, John Houghtaling II of New Orleans, "These machines are

ready to be employed. The technology is familiar to the industry."

Tracking the unpredictable spill and the complex loop current is

a challenge for scientists, said Charlie Henry, a NOAA

environmental scientist.

The loop moves based on the shifting winds and other

environmental factors, so even though the oil is leaking

continuously it may be in the current one day, and out the next.

And the slick itself has defied scientists' efforts to track it and

predict its path. Instead, it has repeatedly advanced and

retreated, an ominous, shape-shifting mass in the Gulf, with vast

underwater lobes extending outward.

"The key point is that we watch and study and monitor oil

adjacent to the loop current and we model it to try to get ahead of

it," Henry said. "Nothing is changing quickly and nothing is

changing drastically over the next few days."