Weather permitting, cleanup crews continue to make daily trips to Mississippi’s barrier islands to sift tar balls and patties out of the sand.
“It was absolutely disheartening the amount of oil that is still out there,” Terry Morris, oil spill coordinator for the Gulf Islands National Seashore, said, referring to a recent visit to Petit Bois Island.
“It is small tar balls, but it was very obvious. What happens is that stuff got buried by sand.”
Strong north winds are moving the sand off buried tar balls and patties, he said.
“The area you cleaned yesterday overnight becomes soiled again.”
Mississippi’s islands “got hammered” worse than Alabama and Florida beaches, he said.
“I think we will be doing the cleanup for awhile,” Morris said.
But, at some point the cleanup may be halted because it is viewed as more harmful than the remaining oil material, he said.
“We are not there yet,” he said.
Melvin Castillo, unified command operations director for Mississippi, said the current island cleanup response includes 1,200 individuals, more than 500 pieces of equipment and 70-plus vessels.
Morris noted that there are very few new tar balls coming ashore.
“I think the ones sighted may be the ones that were buried in the offshore sandbar,” he said. “They are highly weathered. They are pretty dry. There is not a lot of goo or ooze to them. They have no smell of oil to them.”
Castillo also said there is no new oil washing up on the beaches.
The oil gushing from BP PLC’s Deepwater Horizon’s ruptured wellhead stopped on July 15. The rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and damaging the wellhead. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 4.9 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Morris said the oil struck the Mississippi islands in late June and in July, powered by high seas and tides from Hurricane Alex and Tropical Storm Bonnie.
“We’ve still got crews out there on all the islands when we can get to them,” Morris said.
“They are doing the manual cleanup,” he said. “They are using these screens and shovels and sifting tools to sift the oil and tar patties from the sand.”
Morris said about 50 workers have been on Petit Bois Island and that number should increase to 100 within a month.
“We trying to get a big push out there now while the weather is fairly decent and before the bad storms come in,” he said.
The Petit Bois cleanup also includes two beach-cleaning machines towed by tractors, he said.
“They are working in higher areas of oil density,” Morris said. “It basically pick ups everything and that’s a problem with them. It picks up shells, the oil, the sargassum weed, all the organic material gets picked up as well. So, that’s problematic. We don’t want to see all that organic material disappear.”
Crews are also on Horn, East Ship, West Ship and Cat islands, he said.
Morris provided a snapshot of the cleanup effort on Nov. 21.
- On Horn Island, a 117-person crew picked up 3,370 pounds of material.
- On Petit Bois Island, a crew of 84 workers picked up 6,875 pounds of material.
- On West Ship Island, a 51-person crew picked up 742 pounds of material.
- On East Ship Island, the cleanup has been halted as a pair of bald eagles nest in the center of the island.
- On Cat Island, cleanup workers could not land on the island because of rough seas.
Morris said he has no idea how long the cleanup will continue, but there may be break taken during the winter.
Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique teams are reviewing what’s been done by analyzing square meter plots, he said.
“They count the number of tar balls in that square meter and if it is 1 percent of less, that’s good,” Morris said. “If it is 1 percent or higher, then they’ve got to keep cleaning. That’s their standard for this year.”
At 1 percent, the park superintendent can decide no additional cleanup is needed, he said.
The idea is to “Let the microbes work on them during the winter,” Morris said.
A decision on the winter cleanup operations on the islands it to be made this month, he said.
Castillo said the National Park Service approved cleaning to a depth of six inches. The previous depth had been three inches, he said.
The cleanup on the islands is very different than on the mainland, Castillo said.
“We were able to go out there and pick it up before it was covered again,” he said of the mainland cleanup.
About 25,000 pounds of material is picked up on the islands a day compared to about 200 pounds on the mainland, he said.
Castillo estimated only 5 percent of the material picked up is oil.
Cleanup crews are working out of Pascagoula, Point Cadet in Biloxi, Gulfport and Henderson Point, he said.