Storm Season Tar Mats
GULF SHORES, Alabama — During hurricane season, with storms thrashing about, the Gulf of Mexico is like a washtub.
Wave action intensifies and sands shift, uncovering more and more tar mats just off Alabama’s shores.
Those who work along the coast say they know the presence of tar mats left by the BP oil spill last year is heavy because tarballs continue to float ashore every day.
And that’s heightened with the activity of rough seas.
About a week ago, a 1,500-foot by 30-foot tar mat as much as 18-inches thick “exposed itself” just west of Little Lagoon Pass just off the water’s edge, according to Grant Brown, spokesman for Gulf Shores.
Work to remove the gooey mass started almost immediately, but was stalled because of recent rains. Crews are expected to return to work Sunday and continue for about another week.
Even near shore tar mats, like that one, are difficult to locate, and officials don’t know exactly how many sit along the state’s coastline.
At least four have been removed from the Gulf Shores area in the past year, according to Brown, who described tar mats as having a “nasty odor” when pulled ashore.
Another tar mat also was excavated from the Little Lagoon Pass about three months ago, he said.
“It’s not readily visible until it starts breaking up,” Brown said. “It’s definitely something that’s not native, not natural and needs to go. Our position is if they find a tar mat, it needs to be removed.”
That’s why leaders on Pleasure Island have pushed to keep BP cleanup crews at the beaches this summer, with “strike teams” ready to pick up tar whenever it is spotted.
BP recently performed sonar testing in an effort to locate tar mats, but came up empty, finding only “anomalies” that could not be linked to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Some officials, like Orange Beach Coastal Resource Manager Phillip West, are skeptical of the technology.
“The methods they’ve been using have been mostly experimental and either they know they’re not working or they can’t tell if they’re working,” West said. “So it’s just kind of frustrating.”
One of the best ways to locate tar mats, West said, might be the same way the city searches for beach quality sand, by analyzing offshore core samples.
The oil giant continues to examine new technologies that would best map out the lingering oil, according to spokesman Justin Saia.
BP still has about 350 people working in Alabama, 250 of which are out in the field, Saia said.
Brown pointed out that tar mats are likely not dangerous to people. As early as last summer, he said, studies showed that the oil from the BP spill was not toxic.
As much as 3 to 3.5 miles of tar mats — some almost a mile long — have been spotted in about a dozen locations in the Orange Beach area, but West said “significantly more” tar mats are likely.
“There’s a source somewhere,” West said. “So it only stands to reason that there’s submerged oil near shore.”
A relatively mild summer season has kept the tar mats mostly stagnant, West said, but once a storm hits, excess sand could wash away and expose whatever lies beneath.
Since the spill, crews have noticed about a three-day lag after storms before tar mats were exposed, West said, but a particularly heavy tropical event could throw the oil onshore.
While federal cleanup authorities have said they have a plan for handling oil-stained debris should storm surge push it onto local shores, officials in Alabama’s coastal communities said they haven’t been briefed on the details of that plan.
“We have to expect that there could be significant amounts of tar that will create issues and complicate the debris cleanup effort if we have a storm,” West said. “We hope we don’t have one, but you have to plan for it.”