Oil Spill: BP targets submerged oil


BP cleanup contractors said they will be stepping up efforts in coming weeks to collect tons of buried oil and tar beneath the surface of beaches and waterways in Escambia County.

During a boat tour of Pensacola Bay and Perdido Key on Sunday, Joe Waller, BP’s Pensacola division supervisor for oil spill cleanup, said cleanup contractors are facing new challenges while determining how best to collect deposits of oil and tar that were found submerged at Pensacola Pass near Fort McRee last month.

The previously undiscovered deposits are believed to be the source of about 17,000 pounds of oil a month that continues to wash ashore on beaches at Pensacola Naval Air Station, BP officials said.

Joseph Pursley, BP’s Florida branch environmental coordinator, said the submerged oil was deposited during the oil spill by strong currents coming through Pensacola Pass from the Gulf.

“As the oil came in, it got pounded into the beach, laid down, and then slid back to where it is now,” Pursley said.

Pursley said collecting the submerged tar is a tricky operation because sensitive ecological areas and archaeological sites are located in the area.

To minimize environmental damage, the current plan is for commercial divers to collect the oil by hand using special mesh bags that allow water to drain but contain most of the oil and tar.

“We’ll come in gently because we’re not sure how this stuff will hold together,” Pursley said.

Waller said BP still is finalizing details of the plan, and if everything goes well, cleanup could start as early as next week.

In the meantime, a five-person dive team is charting the location of the submerged tar mats, and cleanup crews are collecting the oil that washes ashore on Pensacola NAS beaches.

Waller couldn’t estimate how long it will take for divers to collect all the underwater tar once cleanup was started.

“Once we’ve been doing it for a couple weeks, we’ll have a better time-line idea,” Waller said.

Continued beach cleanup

In coming weeks, beach cleanup crews in Escambia County are scheduled to receive several new mechanized sand sifters, which will speed the process of unearthing and collecting buried oil.

BP officials estimated that slightly less than 50 percent of the beach has some amount of oil buried beneath the sand.

The situation is slightly better in Perdido Key, where buried oil has not been found more than 18 inches deep, said Bret Posner, task force supervisor for beach cleanup from the Florida-Alabama line to Johnson Beach.

On Pensacola Beach, oil has been found as deep as 30 inches, Posner said.

Don Pearson, who is overseeing cleanup operations on Pensacola Beach, said cleanup contractors are cleaning buried oil on recreational “amenity beaches” before digging in more environmentally sensitive areas of the beach.

“We want to get it fine-tuned so when they go into parks, they know exactly what they’re doing,” Pearson said.

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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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