BP’s deep cleaning to start Monday; scientist wonders whether tilling could disrupt beaches


As BP PLC begins an intense effort Monday to remove lingering tar balls, tar mats and oil stains from Alabama’s beaches and restore the sugar-white sand, officials in the coastal towns plan to keep a daily watch on the cleanup.

Crews, back hoes and the oil company’s “Sand Shark” beach cleaners are expected to roll onto the shore at 6 a.m., starting at the Alabama-Florida border and moving westward.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon is part of the reason BP is starting at the east side of the state. He has vowed to make sure his city’s shores are clean by the end of the year. That’s when tourists start making plans for spring break and summer, he said.

“I’m going to put every amount of pressure every way I can on them to make sure they finish by Jan. 1,” Kennon said. “We’re trying to run a business down here, and you can’t run a business with bulldozers on the beach.”

While BP has balked at the date, saying weather or other unexpected incidents could interrupt progress, company spokesman Ray Melick said the plan is to spend 12 hours a day — from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — working “full bore” to the western edge of Fort Morgan.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the two cities would work with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to monitor progress of the cleanup.

“We’ve got an independent agency that understands how to do this,” Craft said.

Similar cleanup efforts are under way and will continue on Dauphin Island, Melick said.

Along with the heavy tractor equipment cleaning “from the dune line to the water line,” Melick said, BP has about 400 workers in Alabama, many of whom will participate in the deep clean.

Using augers to dig holes in the sand throughout the summer, BP has mapped out tar mats along the coast, where officials have said oil could be located and removed from as deep as 24 inches below the surface.

“We feel like we have a very good idea of what’s out there and how to attack it,” Melick said.

The oil collected will be hauled away and disposed of at licensed landfill sites, according to Melick.

Kennon said he plans to have city workers with their own auger follow the BP crews to make sure no oil is left under the sand.

“We’re going to be checking the beach ourselves,” Kennon said.

Meanwhile, marine scientist George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said he was concerned that all the tilling and digging could harm creatures living in the sand or disrupt the structure of the beach.

“If you stir it up, a little bit of water is going to go a long way to move the stuff around,” Crozier said.

Because beaches naturally erode in the winter, he said, “they are liable to lose more sand as a result” of the work.

“So often we’re going to mess around with the natural system when we’d be much better off to leave it alone.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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