200 Days of Oil: Gulf Spill Cleanup Is a Slippery Slope
Reports this week from the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi suggest that despite an ongoing BP gusher cleanup, new oil continues to seep onshore.
Near the Alabama-Florida border, at a place called Perdido [Lost] Key, BP-contracted crews have been sifting sand for more than six months to try to get rid of tar mats buried nearly three feet beneath the surface.
Having suffered a 50 percent loss in tourist dollars last summer, the effort is being made to ensure the area’s renowned white sand beaches are pure by the new year.
But Perdido Key locals contradict a BP spokesman’s expections to eventually get “99 percent of what’s out there.” Locals believe that all the sifting and shifting of sand is just spreading the oil around.
Near Harrison, Mississippi, crews have been cleaning oil and tar balls off the beach for 200 days. The work is anticipated to continue through next summer. A BP spokesman in Harrison says each crew is picking up 20 to 30 pounds of tar balls a day, by hand. Machinery has proved inefficient against the “small, oily clumps.” Along with the visible tar balls scattered on the shore, there is concern about sub-surface oil buried beneath a layer of sand.
Just offshore from Harrison, the low-lying sand barrier called Horn Island took the brunt of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; heavy mop-up machinery is still in use there.
Suggestions that the spill oil is mostly gone seem to be exaggerated. About 135 shrimp and fishing boats are still at sea aiding in the cleanup; another 1,200 boats are waiting to be scrubbed clean and decontaminated at more than 20 dry docks across the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 square miles of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing; bad weather has hampered efforts to gather sample species that will help authorities decide whether they should be reopened. The daily cost of the cleanup has dropped to an estimated $27 million, from a high of about $67 million… a day.
Unique cleanup concerns are being voiced about the Chandeleur Islands, at the mouth of the Mississippi River off Louisiana. That’s where Governor Bobby Jindal and his troops attempted a quick fix at the height of the spill, bulldozing thousands of tons of sand in an effort to build berms against the oil reaching the marshes and shores.
Unfortunately, according to my friend Ivor van Heerden, a coastal restoration expert who’s been monitoring the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill since the very first day, that berm-building buried oil as deep as seven feet. No effort has been made to retrieve that buried oil. Van Heerden predicts normal winter erosion will unearth the oil and smear it onto the shoreline.
Van Heerden is also concerned that local politicians may be purposely dragging their heels on proper cleanup as a way to keep attention—and federal dollars—focused on the state.
“A few weeks back I had the opportunity to speak to some researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In their opinion, Louisiana has become a ‘victim’ state. It cannot manage its resources well enough to generate sufficient income; instead it looks to get ‘payouts’ from time to time,” says van Heerden. “They also pointed out that this is a very slippery slope for a state.”