Look anywhere in the Gulf and you’ll find problems — like toxic tar balls


As I’ve noted several times recently, the tide has changed when it comes to public perceptions of the Gulf of Mexico, more than three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. For a while, the mega-millions that BP had spent on slick marketing, and bland pronouncements from public officials, had lulled not only the public but even journalists to sleep. But now, good science and some old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting has changed the conversation — and people realize that the environmental crisis along the Gulf Coast is not over, that we are right in the middle of it.

Here’s a good example. Reporters at a TV station in Mobile noticed that oily tar balls are still washing ashore. So they decided to investigate further. Check out what they found:

Just this year, crews have collected more than 8,000 pounds of tar on Alabama’s shores – that’s equivalent to the weight of two cars.  WSFA 12 News picked up at least 2 pounds in a short walk along Orange Beach back in March.

We took the tar balls to Auburn University researchers to find out if the tar balls are in fact from the BP oil spill.  Professor Dr. Prabhakar Clement has studied the BP oil spill since tar started washing up on Alabama’s shores. “We got all kinds of samples from day one,” he tells us.

Dr. Clement has run an analysis on each of his samples and confirmed it did in fact come from the BP oil spill.  He and his team of researchers will do the same with the tar balls WSFA 12 News collected. They’ll answer two questions: ‘Is this tar ball a result of the BP oil spill’ and ‘Why do we care?’

First, they’ll run the analysis to look at certain compounds to tell if it is BP’s oil.  Dr. Clement says, “This is exactly like a crime scene investigation. You essentially look for a fingerprint.”

Dr. Clement’s test reveals the fingerprint from our tar ball is a match to BP. “This sample did come from Deepwater Horizon” Next, the researchers run a chemical analysis. “These are one of the most carcinogenic or cancer forming contaminants.” The chemicals Dr. Clement says he found have been known to cause cancer.

The piece notes that there’s something else that’s troubling about the tar balls that were tested: That the dangerous compounds inside of them were not breaking down quickly, meaning that they will persist in the environment for longer than is hoped. In the meantime, other reporters are coming to the Gulf, and learning that life is definitely not returning to normal. This journalist decided on a whim to travel from Houston to Grand Isle, La.:

Dean Blanchard is as direct as they come so if you need bedside manner, don’t come here. Whether you agree with what he says or not, Dean speaks the truth as he knows it and in my book, he knows some.

When I asked him about the oil on his porch, Dean looked at me as if to say, that ain’t nothin.’ Just the day before, Dean reported, contractors for BP had collected 5,000 pounds of oil at Grand Terre Island. 

Over the last year, Dean said that some 200 to 300 residents had left Grand Isle. “They’re too sick to stay,” he told me. “With all kind of respiratory problems…people couldn’t breathe!”

As for the fishing, things didn’t sound great. “There no oysters,” Dean said, “none are reproducing.  Most fishermen believe they’re not going to be around by the time everything recovers.”

In spite of this, Dean’s sense of humor is alive and kicking.  “BP,” he believes, “really means British Pinocchios.”

Indeed. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry…but the reality is heartbreaking. Horror stories along the Gulf are easy to find — for anyone who takes the time to look. And the first step toward undoing the environmental nightmare in our region is speaking honestly about the seriousness of the situation and the magnitude of the problems.

To learn more about the toxic tar balls that are washing up on Alabama beaches, please read: http://www.wsfa.com/story/22236276/wsfa-12-news-special-report-toxic-tar-balls

To read about a Houston journalist’s recent visit to Grand Isle, please go to: http://houston.culturemap.com/news/city_life/05-13-13-louisiana-revisited-anger-and-sadness-on-grand-isle-as-bp-oil-spill-worries-continue/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • I’ve always wanted to know what happens to all the tar balls that where not collected or those that that just got covered with sand ” as some clean up workers told me happened” . When the sun heats up the sand that the tar ball are buried in and they melt … well what happens ? Do they become ingrained in the sand ? Become more toxic ? Do i need a special beach towel to lay on the sand … what about rashes ?

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

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