Under the sand, BP oil hidden from easy cleanup

Published 11:28 pm Wednesday, July 7, 2010

GULF SHORES (AP) — 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’ll 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 experts question whether it’s better to just leave it alone and let nature run its course, in part because oil that weathers on beaches isn’t considered as much of a health hazard as fresh crude. Some environmentalists and local officials 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.

Meanwhile out in the Gulf, choppy seas held up oil skimming operations all along the Gulf coast, although boats off Louisiana’s shoreline hoped to be back at work before the day ended. Rough waves have halted offshore skimming in Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana for more than a week.

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

BP has high hopes to clean it all 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 even the worst 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 like sand fleas, which 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.”

Some creatures could be removed from dirty sand by sifting the material before washing, but others would undoubtedly be killed.

The Orange Beach mayor fears a long-term nightmare scenario: buried oil being swept off the beach by a hurricane and strewn all over his coastal town.

He favors a method familiar along the Gulf Coast: nourishment. After a hurricane scours a beach flat, workers use huge dredges to pump new sand from the floor of the Gulf onto the beach.

That could work if the Gulf floor isn’t contaminated, too. No one knows yet how bad it is. Only certain areas of the seabed have beach-quality sand and costs could escalate drastically for sand from farther away, said Phillip West, the city’s coastal resources manager. After Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004, it cost $9 million just to renourish Orange Beach.

DeVries, the BP executive, said there is time to develop a plan because the leak isn’t expected to be stopped before August. Oil could be hitting the coast through mid-fall. Possible options include washing sand chemically or even heating it in an incinerator to burn off the oil, he said.

The eventual solution could look like what’s going on at Grand Isle, La., where officials want to use sand-washers like those already used extensively in Canada to cull tar from vast deposits.

Sand will be collected by sifting machines dubbed “Sandbonis,” a reference to the Zamboni machines used to resurface ice rinks. The sand will be dumped into a container, sifted again, and washed with 110-degree water, then mild detergent. It will be tested before eventually being replaced on the beach.

“This is impressive,” Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp Jr. said at a demonstration. “To be able to take the sand off the beach, clean it and put it back is much better than hauling it away.”

Project engineer Mike Lunsford said the washing operation can clean 50 tons of sand an hour. The weight of sand can vary widely, depending on its moisture and how tightly it is packed.

Fifty tons sounds like a lot. But even if the sand is dry and loose, it would take an hour to clean an area less than the size of a basketball court 6 inches deep. Officials say hundreds of thousands of cubic yards need to be cleaned.

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?”