BP Oil Spill’s Sticky Remnants Wash Up Sporadically On Gulf Beaches
Originally published on National Geographic.
Written by Brian Handwerk
As they walk the sands of Orange Beach, Alabama, T. Prabhakar Clementand Joel Hayworth have no difficulty finding traces of the Deepwater Horizondisaster—in fact, the Auburn University researchers have a harder time making sure those traces don’t stick to their feet.
On a mid-February weekend, oil—in the form of hundreds of sticky tar balls—had washed up all over the beach following a storm the night before.
“We could have collected as many tar balls as we wanted to, from less than 1 centimeter up to 4 centimeters (.4 to 1.6 inches) in diameter,” Clement said. “And these are really soft tar balls that are decaying, so there are probably also millions of tiny fragments that we can’t even see. I collected over 1,000 tar balls within [an area of] about 10 miles (16 kilometers) in five hours. What does that mean? I don’t know. What are the health ramifications? I don’t know. But this clearly demonstrates the magnitude of the [ongoing] problem attributable toDeepwater Horizon.”
Tar balls are soft clumps of weathered oil mingled with sand, shells, and other beach material. They can range from the size of a pinhead to larger chunks, about the size of a basketball. And nearly two years after the deadly explosion that destroyed the Transocean oil rig Deepwater Horizon, and unleashed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Macondo well, the oil company’s cleanup personnel are still gathering them up along some Gulf beaches. But many beaches exhibit no tar balls, and even on beaches where tar balls do appear periodically, they aren’t present all the time. In fact, Clement and Hayworth stressed, those beaches often look just fine to the naked eye.
“It’s a very dynamic system,” Hayworth said. “After a run-of-the-mill storm you might come down, and the beach will look like it just got re-oiled. But then, there is so much movement of sand, the beach turns over quickly and the shoreline is constantly moving around. So you could show up as a tourist at any given moment, and it could look pretty pristine.” That may be because omnipresent BP crews pick up the tar balls whenever they appear, he said.
Tracing the Tar Balls
Not all tar balls are the result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Routine leaking in offshore oil operations, discharges from marine vehicles, onshore runoff, and even natural seepage from the ocean floor also create some. In fact, each day enough oil to fill 1,300 barrels of oil seeps naturally into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. But the Auburn researchers say their studies show that the vast majority of the oily tar balls still washing up in the Gulf are directly attributable to the spill.
That is so, they say, even though the Shoreline Clean-up Completion Plan (SCCP) released in November by the Unified Command, the joint BP-federal-state entity coordinating the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, noted that during six months of surveys across four states, cleanup teams found some 5,000 non-Deepwater Horizon tar balls.
“In light of this report, BP’s subtle suggestion is that other sources of contamination are possibly of the same magnitude as Deepwater Horizon,” Clement explained. “But we could have easily collected over 5,000 tar balls during our last survey day” on Orange Beach, he added. And it’s easy to trace tar balls back to Deepwater Horizon. As Unified Command reports make clear, the BP tar balls are 80 percent sand and break up easily. Those physical properties make them unlike those of other Gulf tar balls, and easy to identify in the field, even without chemical “fingerprinting,” according to the SCCP report.
“Also, the numbers tell the story, when you see several hundreds and thousands at a specific location [where tar balls have] never occurred before on our shores,” Clement added.
What Happened to All That Oil?
Markus Huettel, a benthic ecologist at Florida State University, has been researching the status of Deepwater Horizon oil on Florida Panhandle beaches since June 2010. Huettel explained that while much of the BP well’s oil was degraded or evaporated. A staggering amount—he suggests 60 percent is a conservative estimate—remains unaccounted for.
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