ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Promising a deep cleaning of the northern Gulf Coast’s oil-stained beaches, BP PLC on Tuesday unveiled the latest implement in its efforts: A $300,000 beach cleaning rig that combines machinery typical found on highway construction sites and in brick making.
Two months in the making, the so-called Sand Shark is wider than the beach cleaning machines that have been scouring local shorelines this summer. It’s also able to collect smaller tarballs and can extract bits of oil from up to 18 inches below the beach’s surface.
“The majority of the contaminants that we’ve seen are within the range of this machine,” Keith Seilhan, BP’s Mobile Incident Commander, told reporters, state and federal environmental officials, contractors and municipal officials. The midday demonstration took place at the Cotton Bayou public beach access.
“We’re not going to say it cleans up every molecule of hydrocarbon, but it can get the vast majority and then allow the natural deterioration of the hydrocarbons to take hold in a much shorter period of time.”
Seilhan said that while the prototype will operate in Baldwin County, more Sand Sharks are in the works and could be deployed to Florida and Mississippi beaches within the next six weeks.
“The beach consistency in Louisiana is a bit different and requires a different tool but we’re not against trying this in any situation that it might work,” he said. “We’re optimistic about its utility across the Gulf Coast, especially the northern Gulf Coast.”
The Sand Shark works by churning up sand with mandible-like augers that feed the material onto a conveyor belt. From there the sand is carried into a tow-behind machine that is normally used to sieve aggregate like clay and sand in brick and mortar manufacturing. In the sifter the sand tumbles through a series of screens that filter out most everything larger than 2 mm while allowing debris-free sand to spill back onto the beach.
Seilhan said that he was challenged by local leaders to develop a way to more effectively and less intrusively clean oiled beaches.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to meet that challenge and fulfill our obligation as the responsible party,” he said. “What we at BP hope is that we can continually show the community and the public at-large that we’re a responsible company and that hopefully we can build confidence in our efforts to restore what we’ve damaged. We’re committed to do what it takes, as long as it takes to get this done right.”
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who was one of those to challenge BP to get better at cleaning beaches, said, “I have no reason but to hope for the best and that (the Sand Shark’s) effective — and if it is, I want one.
“The last thing anyone wants is to see them fail.”
Bright orange and emblazoned with BP logos, the Sand Shark dismantled any doubt that there is a significant amount of oil sitting just below the surface of Baldwin’s sandy vistas. After tilling a stretch of less than 50 feet, the Sand Shark’s hopper was filled with a mash of shell shards and emulsified oil.
And though it scraped down more than a foot into the sand, it was clear by the tarballs smeared in the Sand Shark’s tracks that there will be oil that the machine does not collect. Seilhan said his team is working to address this problem, experimenting with implements that will lift more deeply buried oil to the Sand Shark’s augers.
“I’m glad to see them get a real high-volume, heavy piece of equipment,” Orange Beach Coastal Resources Manager Phillip West said following the demonstration. “I think it’s more efficient.”
Still, West noted there is a distinct difference in hue between ochre-tinted surfside sand and the bright white quartz that has remained untouched by oil. The variation is evident even without looking. Where the unsoiled sand remains powdery and retains its characteristic squeak, oiled stretches are silent underfoot, and possess a quality that mimics dampness.
“There’s a texture issue that’s going to need to be addressed,” West said. “I’m not sure how they do that.”