Gulf Beach Cleaning Slows Though Tar Remains

02/23/2011 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Southeast Louisiana beach lovers -- upset about losing last summer's surf to the BP spill -- may be eager to grab a towel on the first, warm weekend and head down to Grand Isle. BP says it wants to see Gulf beaches open for spring breaks at colleges in late February. And federal researchers maintain that most beaches have been cleaned enough since the well blowout.

A recent, interagency study said that further scouring and sponging of beaches affected by the spill could do more harm than good. In a "Summary Report for Fate and Effects of Remnant Oil in the Beach Environment," released on Feb. 11, federal and university researchers examined data from beaches at Grand Isle, La.; Petit Bois Island, Miss.; Bon Secour, Ala. and Fort Pickens, Fla.

Grand Isle was repeatedly oiled, starting in May 2010, the report said, and of the four communities its beaches were most affected by the spill because of "the early timing of oil stranding." Oil seen on Grand Isle was less weathered or altered, and was more raw than oil that washed up in the three, other beach towns.

Some local observers feel the cleaning effort should continue.

Last week, Grand Isle Port Commission executive director Wayne Keller said he believes certain areas of Grand Isle and Elmer's Island will require "maintenance" for awhile. He pointed to tar mats off the coast in waters that have been tough to reach with shore-based equipment. Removing oil from remote locations east of Grand Isle can be difficult, he said. Marshes and beaches to the east -- from Grand Terre eastward -- will remain challenging because of the amount of oil that was deposited there

Meanwhile, the "Sand Washer," a giant apparatus that sat on Grand Isle's beach last summer and fall, was removed several months ago, Keller said. The machine, built by Houston-based engineering-company M-I SWACO, was able to clean dozens of tons of sand an hour with an operations crew, serviced by dump trucks.

In this month's federal report, researchers said Grand Isle's shore was aggressively cleaned to meet a standard of no visible oil or oiled debris -- beyond a normal level from natural Gulf oil seeps and beach oiling seen before the spill. Part of the island's coast has been cleaned so much that no further treatment is needed, but in other sections submerged oil mats and buried oil are still being removed.

A "net environment benefit analysis" or NEBA in this month's federal report, showing results on a matrix or chart, suggested that further cleaning of sand beaches could be highly risky to birds, of low-to-high risk to sea turtles, of low risk to aquatic fish and invertebrates, and of mixed impact to beach mice. Cleanup activities on beaches could harm shorebirds directly, by removing materials needed for foraging and roosting.

Researchers expressed concern, however, about dangers to shore birds that can probe subsurfaces and swallow tarballs. They also worried about turtle eggs laid on any oil that hasn't been weathered or altered yet. All of the five kinds of turtles found along the Gulf Coat are threatened or endangered species.

Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser thinks it's way too soon to scale back cleanups. He said "it isn't just tarballs washing ashore, we've got plywood-thick oil in the marshes. When birds have only a little oil on them, it breaks their armor and they can die. They crawl back into the marsh to die."

Nungesser added "we've lost 50 feet of land on the coast since the spill." As for the report, he said "government decisions are made from fancy offices somewhere." Federal agencies should be asking what else they can do to clean the marshes, he said. "Instead, they're trying to save money. The feds are on stage and can say anything they want to, without backing it up, and they get away with it." The government has continued to defend BP since last April's spill, he said.

The recent, federal report said that further beach cleanups, beyond established and already-achieved standards, would most likely threaten fish and wildlife. Cleanup guidelines exist to strike a scientifically supported balance between "enough" and "too much" cleanup, the report said. Continued cleaning could result in an increasingly, negative impact to habitats as more and more effort is directed to removing less oil. Research was based on lab analysis of collected samples, environmental models and a review of existing literature.

Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, agreed that aggressive cleaning can be harmful. He said, "We feel that much of the report is correct. Unfortunately in marshes, where much of Louisiana's oil remains, more intense cleanup could do more harm than good."

Viles continued, saying "beaches are a bit easier, and where tarballs continue to wash up they need to be removed." But he also said, "We are concerned that the extent of the cleanup varies from state to state and beach to beach, with less enthusiasm for areas not in the public eye, and with some inconsistent, cleanup standards."

In their report, federal researchers said as spring and summer approach, human needs must be considered in decisions about shoreline cleanups.

In a Jan. 21 transcript from a public Question and Answer session on Facebook, Mike Utsler, chief operating officer for BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said "we continue to work closely with all parties in developing our ongoing, cleanup schedules and efforts. Our goal is to have all of the amenity beaches fully cleaned and ready for the upcoming, spring break season." He added, "Our visits continue to confirm that we are on track and the beaches are beautiful."

From his perspective on the coast, Nungesser worries that the federal government is too cozy with BP. But, he said, "we're going to clean up the marshes and save wildlife in Plaquemines Parish, with or without the federal government. We're not taking any prisoners. We've got oil in the marshes and this is about survival not politics."

Nungesser also said "the feds say the sand berms aren't working, but I'm out there in the water and see the berms protecting the pelicans." The state has built miles of berms since June with sand dredged from the Gulf using BP money. Recently, berm construction has shifted to an effort to rebuild barrier islands.

The government's beach report was authored by the Operational Science Advisory Team, including experts from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, BP and Temple University.

The report's authors said their study will help Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator for the BP Deepwater spill response, assess when it's best to reduce or stop cleanups, and that final decisions about treating beach sites will be made with state and local authorities.

This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Feb. 21, 2011 edition.