Giant-sized, beeping and chugging oil-cleaning machines carved deep tracks in the sand as they lumbered eastward down the beach at Fort Pickens last week.
Flocks of gulls sitting on the beach scattered in frenzied flight as the noisy backhoe, oil-mining Sand Shark and tar ball-scooping beach rake approached.
As the disturbance shrank into the distance, the birds returned to their quiet posts on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.
By Tuesday, these scenes will be a thing of the past.
BP is out of the full-time, onshore oil cleaning business, eight months after 16,000 cleanup workers and 60 pieces of heavy machinery invaded Florida beaches to begin daily rituals of picking up tar balls and digging up submerged oil.
Now, a contingent of about 200 workers on all-terrain vehicles will patrol beaches from Perdido Key to Port St. Joe, looking for and hand-cleaning what’s left of tar balls and mats that wash up.
Gulf Islands National Seashore officials say BP’s cutback is great and timely news, with shorebird nesting season beginning Tuesday and sea turtle season starting in May. Santa Rosa Island Authority officials are pleased too because spring break season is beginning this week.
But Escambia County officials are not so quick to let BP off the hook.
“BP has finished the deep cleaning and is asking us to sign off,” said Keith Wilkins, the county’s point man on environmental issues. “They are comfortable with the job they’ve done, but we are not.”
Before BP ships off all of its deep-cleaning machines and reduces its work force, the county wants to confirm the company’s claims that 99 percent of the oil on area beaches is gone.
The county is planning to conduct visual inspections, including scanning beaches with ultraviolet light at night to detect oil. It will do auger tests to make sure submerged oil is gone. And it will hire an auditing firm to analyze BP’s records to determine whether its assessments and cleanup procedures were uniform on all segments of the beaches.
“We want to look at the strength of that data,” Wilkins said, adding that BP is cooperating. “We want to know how they were traveling the beach, how they were noting what they found, and look at their description of oil, whether it was a tar mat, tar ball or sheen. We want to verify how they investigated it.”
The county also is reluctant to sign off on the cleanup operations when known and unknown tar mats are submerged in the Gulf off the beaches, Wilkins said.
“We feel it will be too confusing for the public if we say the beaches are clean and there’s still tar mats offshore and tar balls are still washing up,” he said. “So we’re not going to separate that out.”
No plan for tar mats
So far, BP does not have a plan to address most of the remaining submerged tar mats, but officials at the company’s Incident Command in New Orleans are working on it, said Tom Mahan, BP’s Florida Branch director.
“It’s not our intentions of ignoring it, but if we’re going to do something, we want it to be effective,” Mahan said. “We don’t want to stir it up. We don’t want it to be a negative impact.”
As a test, BP is planning to use a large excavator on Perdido Key this week to try to remove a large tar mat, just off the beach near Eden Condominium. It’s one of nine known to be in near-shore waters off of the key.
Mahan and Wilkins said it’s still unclear exactly how much oil is submerged in area waters.
An assessment team last week began sending a probe down to map an area of submerged oil discovered last fall in Pensacola Pass off Fort McRae.
Mahan said samples of the oil will be fingerprinted to see if it is from the Deepwater Horizon oil well.
“Then they’ll create a plan on what we’ll do,” he said.
He stressed that BP is committed to completing the cleanup process.
“We’ll stay until we’ve reached pre-oil spill conditions,” he said.
National Seashore Superintendent Dan Brown is expected to sign paperwork early this week to officially allow BP and its workers to leave.
Surveillance teams have spent several weeks inspecting seashore beaches to ensure that two guidelines have been met prior to BP’s departure: “Less than 1 percent distribution of tar balls and no tar balls greater than an inch in diameter,” said Andrew Milanes, a BP contractor on one of the surveillance teams.
Milanes’ team said the requirements were fulfilled at all but the small area where the seashore property meets Pensacola Beach at Park West.
The heavy equipment that paraded down the beach at Fort Pickens landed at that site to dig a little deeper for submerged oil. And workers used rakes to sweep up seaweed and pick it clean of tar balls.
Once Brown signs the paperwork, all mechanical operations and most cleanup will be suspended, said Nina Kelson, the seashore’s deputy superintendent.
“We want to make sure the birds have a fairly normal season,” she said.
Last year, nesting was disrupted when National Seashore beaches were invaded by helicopters and droves of volunteers, media and cleanup crews as the oil spill approached the coast in May.
“The cumulative impacts of losing two nesting seasons back-to-back is not acceptable,” Brown said. “Birds are very sensitive to human activity. When people get too close, they flush and leave nests and leave their eggs. Eggs exposed to intense heat of the sun won’t survive.”
Snowy plovers and least terns will arrive first, followed by large black skimmers, said Terry Morris, the seashore’s oil spill liaison.
Park visitors can expect to see sections of beaches roped off to protect the nesting grounds. Speed limits will be reduced to 20 mph because baby chicks can wander onto the roads.
To reduce impacts on the birds, BP cleanup crews will be replaced by small seashore teams patrolling the beaches by foot monitoring the birds and oil.
“If they find a handful of tar balls, they’ll pick them up,” Morris said. “If 200 meters of beach is covered with tar balls, we’ll call BP to help clean up, if there are no birds. We won’t bring back the heavy equipment unless a storm uncovers or washes up a massive tar mat that we can’t handle.”
BP will keep a Sand Shark in Panama City for such use.
Most of the cleanup will focus on the 5.5 miles of recreational beaches that attract the most visitors in the 22.1 miles of the seashore’s shoreline. Those beaches are Langdon Beach at Fort Pickens, Opal Beach in the Santa Rosa area, Johnson Beach on Perdido Key, and areas where the public can access the beach from parking lots and boardwalks.
Oil still out there
Brown stressed that inspections were just surface observations.
“The public needs to understand that there’s still subsurface oil out there,” he said. “We know that.”
The seashore did not allow BP to eradicate its beach of 99 percent of oil.
The deepest cleaning, up to 18 inches, was only done on the 5.5 miles of recreational beaches. That’s nowhere near as deep as the 24 to 36 inches cleanup crews dug for oil on Pensacola Beach.
But seashore officials weighed the benefits of digging deeper with damaging the ecosystem. And that’s why cleanup was limited to 6 inches on non-recreational beaches.
“And we restricted the size of the sand-shifter screen to allow organisms in the sand to pass through and survive,” Brown said.
More than 20 different organisms — including ghost crabs, tiger beetles, sand fleas and microscopic creatures — live in the sand. They create the bottom of the food chain for the creatures, including shorebirds, that feed on the beach.
“Our scientists said 40 percent of the organisms did not survive the cleanup,” Brown said.
The hope is that the organisms in the more lightly cleaned areas will repopulate the deeply cleaned areas.
And seashore scientists believe the best way to address what’s left of the oil is to wait until waves or wind exposes it and clean it manually, Brown said.
Expect tar balls
Wilkins cautioned visitors to Escambia County beaches not to be lulled into thinking they won’t step on tar balls just because the major cleanup is over.
“We’ll see tar balls for years,” he said. “The sky is not falling. But at the same time, people will still get tar on their feet and towels.”
The county’s best advice is to be prepared to wipe tar balls off with (Avon’s) Skin So Soft or baby oil and paper towels and throw the paper towels away.
Even though tar balls are expected, beachgoer Ashley Badders found none last week on the beach at Fort Pickens.
“When I came out here with my son, Conner, last summer, we’d kneel down on the edge of the surf,” said Badders. 30. “When we stood up, we would have oil from our knees to the tops of our feet. And baby wipes would not get it off. It’s cleaner now. Even the air smells cleaner.”