Under the sand, oil remains hidden from easy cleanup

Some argue that nature should run its course

Oil cleanup workers used absorbent booms to collect oil and tar balls yesterday in Orange Beach, Ala. Oil washed ashore with the tide overnight, leaving an ugly stain that brought out BP workers, but there were few tourists around to witness the mess. Oil cleanup workers used absorbent booms to collect oil and tar balls yesterday in Orange Beach, Ala. Oil washed ashore with the tide overnight, leaving an ugly stain that brought out BP workers, but there were few tourists around to witness the mess. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)
By Jay Reeves
Associated Press / July 8, 2010

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GULF SHORES, Ala. — There’s a dirty secret buried under Gulf of Mexico beaches after cleanup workers scrape away the oil washing ashore.

Walk to a seemingly pristine patch of sand, plop down in a chair, and start digging with your bare feet, like everyone does at the beach. Chances are you will walk away with gooey tar between your toes.

So far, cleanup workers hired by BP have skimmed only the surface, using shovels or sifting machines to remove oil. The company is planning a deeper cleaning program that could include washing or incinerating sand once the leak is stopped off the coast of Louisiana.

Some observers question whether it’s better to just leave it alone and let nature run its course, in part because oil that weathers on beaches is not considered as much of a health hazard as fresh crude. Some environmentalists and local officials, however, fret about harm to the ecosystem and tourism.

“We have to have sand that is just as clean as it was before the spill,’’ said Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, a popular tourist stretch reaching to the Florida state line.

Orange Beach was stained by a new wave of tar balls and brown, oil-stained foam yesterday after days of relatively oil-free surf, but few tourists were around to see the mess.

Officials at BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in April, creating the largest oil disaster in US history, say they want to clean up the spill completely, eventually. Mark DeVries, BP’s deputy incident commander in Mobile, envisions a time when no one can tell what hit the beaches during the summer of oil.

“That’s our commitment — to return the beaches to the state they were before,’’ Devries said. “We’re referring to it as polishing the beaches.’’

Chuck Kelly knows what a job that will be. He works at Gulf State Park and has been watching as tides bury oil deposits — slicks hundreds of yards long and inches deep — before cleaning crews can reach them.

“Some oil comes in with a wave, and another wave covers it with sand,’’ he said. “It’s just like a rock or a shell. There’s all sorts of things buried in this sand. Now, there’s oil.’’

George Crozier, a marine scientist and director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said there’s only one real reason to dig up the buried oil: tourism.

“Buried is buried. It will get carved up by a hurricane at some point, but I see no particular advantage to digging it up,’’ he said. “It’s a human environmental hazard only because people don’t want to go to the beach if it’s got tar balls on it.’’

Judy Haner, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy, favors deep-cleaning because the sand is home to small creatures such as sand fleas that form the base of the coastal food chain.

“They’re the ones exposed to [oil] every tidal cycle, and they’re living in the sand,’’ she said. “It’s the bioaccumulation up the chain that is problematic.’’

No matter the solution, local officials and would-be beachgoers are frustrated and hope their favorite spots can be saved.

“This is heartbreaking,’’ said Julie Davidson, 42, who drove down to Grand Isle from Kenner to see the effects of the spill. “We usually come down here at least for a long weekend, but there’s no reason to now. You can’t get in the water, you’re afraid of the beach. Why come?’’

In other developments:

■Choppy seas held up oil skimming operations all along the coast. Rough waves have halted offshore skimming in Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana for more than a week.

■The Obama administration has asked a federal court in Louisiana to reinstate the ban on deepwater drilling in the gulf, saying the moratorium was a rational response to the unparalleled emergency of the BP oil leak. In the court filing late Tuesday, the Interior Department said that the six-month ban on drilling in more than 500 feet of water, imposed in late May, was necessary to allow time to adopt stricter safety and environmental regulation of deepwater wells.

The action has put hundreds of people who operate and service deepwater wells out of work. Politicians along the coast have called the moratorium a case of federal overkill that threatens the livelihood of the region. Last month, a federal judge agreed and issued an order blocking enforcement of the moratorium.

■Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to issue new guidelines for the drilling ban by the end of the week. This could allow some deep-water drilling or well maintenance activity to start again, an agency official said.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.

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