ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — BP patrols may be gone, but that doesn’t mean the beaches here aren’t monitored for tarballs on a consistent basis.
“We send staff out regularly,” Coastal Resources Director Phillip West said. “We all take a stretch of beach or take a turn and go out and just assess what it’s looking like.”
Perception is reality, West said, and the last perception he wants getting out about Orange Beach is there is a problem with oil on the beaches.
“You don’t it to go left unmitigated or not cleaned up and accumulate to be a bigger problem,” West said. “What we don’t want to happen is to have it accumulate and in the hot sun and if people walked in an area where there was quite a bit of tar. Especially if it got in that hot, dry sand, it’d smear on your feet, it’d get on your boardwalk, it’d get on your carpet.
“Frankly we’re trying to protect from a perception issue.”
Regular BP patrols ended in June and now it’s up to individual citizens to alert authorities when tarballs are spotted. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are both trying to keep an eye on their beaches as well.
Cleanup crews will only respond to National Response Center (NRC) reports generated by calling 1-800-424-8802. When an NRC report is filed, the Coast Guard will then take appropriate action.
“It really puts the burden on the community to monitor for tar or oil on the beach,” West said. “Just like before the oil spill. If we saw something on the beach we called the National Response Center and the Coast Guard would usually come and check it out and try to determine the responsible party.
“Most of the tar we find is attributable to MC-252 origin and therefore BP would be the responsible party and the Coast Guard squares up with them. It’s pretty recognizable.”
And most of the tarballs are frequently found in the same areas.
“We get some just east of Perdido Pass in the Park area,” West said. “We have another spot we look pretty regularly at about a mile west of the pass. It extends east from (Turquoise Place.) It could be anywhere in that area.
“A smattering of other areas and right at the city limit-state park line it really picks up. The further west you go the worse it is.”
West says a few calls from the public have been coming in.
“The state usually copies us when an NRC report is made within our jurisdiction,” he said. “We’ve seen quite a few that the citizens have called in, mostly on the Gulf beaches. We had one last week on one of the islands.”
The bottom line, West says, is there is more oil out there and it’s likely to keep coming in.
“There’s a source of material somewhere, somewhere lurking either on shore or off shore,” he said. “We hope we can find some of those mats, remove them, remove the source of these tarballs.
“Intuitively, if I were in charge of the search of the operation to go locate and delineate these tar mats, I would begin with some connection to those shorelines that are regularly impacted by tar. There’s no telling what’s covered up, that isn’t exposed so it isn’t generating tarballs right now.”
Summer, with south winds generally pushing the waves further ashore, is usually the slowest time of the year for tarballs. When the north wind and winter storms kick up, more tar is exposed, West said.
“Of course, major, high-energy events like a hurricane could change that,” he said. “No one knows. Everybody has their idea and speculate where the tar is coming from, but not BP, not the Coast Guard, not Orange Beach, not Auburn. Nobody knows what’s going on under the water out there in the bottom.
“Winter, because it usually has more energy and more storms and more fronts that tend to churn up the bottom a little more, that’s when we really find the most material.”
During Christmas break when the BP crews stopped patrolling, West said hundreds of pounds of tarballs awaited them when they came back after Jan. 1.