As the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill approaches next week, areas along the Gulf Coast are still plagued by “chronic re-oiling” from balls of oil and sand that wash ashore after breaking free from submerged mats of degraded oil and sediments, according to officials overseeing federal cleanup efforts.
The “surface residue balls” – yet another term in an ever-expanding oil-spill lexicon that includes tarballs and oil mousse – are about 90 percent sand and sediments, Coast Guard Commander Dan Lauer said Thursday at a news conference in Grand Isle.
He said the rest is highly degraded oil that poses no health risks but is a nuisance to beachgoers, prompting a surge in cleanup efforts before a tropical storm can churn up the mats and curb another tourism season.
Lauer said crews are experimenting with different types of sonar and radar to locate the mats resting on the sea floor. The oil and sand mats are typically about 300 square feet and have been found from Louisiana to Florida, he said.
The mats have been easier to find in the relatively clear waters of the eastern Gulf than in the murky waters off Louisiana’s coast, Lauer said.
“It’s very difficult to find them, and then to remove them is a whole different matter,” Lauer said. “We’re doing the research and development as we go.”
He said 92 percent of the Louisiana shoreline has been cleaned, with persistent trouble spots in Barataria Bay and Pass a Loutre, where oil-choked mats of marsh grass line the shores.
Lauer said crews have had success cutting back the dead grass to expose the oil to the elements, accelerating its degradation.
“There is absolutely some damage to the wetlands, but we’re also seeing good regrowth,” he said. “If the root system stays healthy, the grass seems to grow back very well.”
The news conference was held on Grand Isle’s beach, where a procession of four mechanical sand-sifters, or “sand Zambonies” as the crews call them, skimmed the top 2 to 3 inches of sand and sifted out any tarballs.
During a question-and-answer session, several Grand Isle residents accused the Coast Guard of putting on a “dog and pony show” for the news media.
“How come we don’t see this every day and not just when the TV cameras are here?” said Dean Blanchard, who owns a seafood processing plant on the barrier island.
“How much are they paid to hold up shovels?” asked a woman.
Lauer said the sand-sifting “is typical of the work that we are doing on a daily basis.”
“We had them do it here so the media wouldn’t have to run all over the beach to see how it’s being done,” he said.
Lauer said the number of cleanup workers has fallen from a peak of 48,000 when BP’s gushing well was capped in July to about 2,000 now.
He said cleanup efforts will continue throughout the upcoming hurricane season. After that, federal officials will re-evaluate the need to continue.
But even if cleanup operations are halted, Lauer said that if any oil comes ashore, the Coast Guard will be there to clean it up.
“Regardless of where the oil came from, we are mandated to take care of it,” he said. “We’ll be here as long as it takes.”
Paul Rioux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3785.