Gulf oil spill tarballs cover Fort Morgan


The tip of the Fort Morgan peninsula is awash in tarballs.

While the Gulf beach at Fort Morgan is relatively clear of tar, the several hundred yards of sand beginning at the mouth of Mobile Bay and wrapping around toward the ferry dock is another story.

Tarballs ranging from the size of a nickel to the size of a person’s palm are spread liberally along the water’s edge and at the foot of the sand dunes well up the beach.

Along the water, the tarballs outnumber seashells and other flotsam. Hunks of oiled debris, including a mattress, were strewn along the beach Wednesday morning. Bits of tar were wedged into the crevices of fighting conchs and cockle shells.

On the higher sections of the beach, tarballs were so plentiful that they were seldom more than an inch apart.

BP officials said cleanup crews were on a 10-day holiday but would return to work Monday morning.

“They’ll be cleaning at Fort Morgan for a long while. I know the cleanup activities are still ongoing there,” said Tommy Lambright, a BP spokesman. “That area is not finished.”

Cleanup crews have been a nearly constant presence on the tip of Fort Morgan for months, often working in the surf with rakes and dip nets, fishing out tar.

Shells and other bits of debris caught up in the waves breaking along the Gulf beaches typically work their way around the point due to natural currents. In Alabama, the nearshore current, known as the littoral current, pushes sand and shells along the beach from east to west. The current is powered by the waves rolling ashore.

At Fort Morgan, other currents come into play due to the influence of tidal flow in and out of Mobile Bay and the presence of Dixey Bar, just offshore.

Scientists say the confluence of currents at the tip of Fort Morgan mean it serves as a catch point where debris such as shells or tarballs gather. That explains why crews have to clean a few hundred yards of sand over and over again.

A similar phenomenon has played out just inside the mouth of Pensacola Bay and along the tips of the barrier islands, according to Press-Register surveys of those locations.

Tarballs also appeared to be present in the shallow water just offshore, and could be seen rolling along the bottom in a few inches of water. High winds on Wednesday had clouded the water, making it impossible to see if oil was present at greater depths.

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