Oil washes up on Baldwin County beaches


ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — Though the tropical depression in the Gulf fizzled, what was left of the storm on Thursday morning was enough to churn up submerged oil and carry it ashore, staining tide lines into Baldwin County’s beaches and depositing sporadic clumps of soiled sargassum and tarballs.

In a Thursday morning e-mail to local government leaders, a U.S. Coast Guard official acknowledged that what had washed up was being classified as subsurface oil — something that cleanup officials have been slow to acknowledge.

“We’ve been saying there’s submerged oil coming into (Perdido Pass) for some time and (BP PLC) completely dismissed our concerns and our accounts,” said Orange Beach Mayor Kennon. “Hopefully this proves we’re not a bunch of dummies.”

Since early last week BP has rejected claims from Orange Beach that city contractors are regularly encountering and collecting oil from inshore waters, including Cotton Bayou, Terry Cove and Bayou St. John, city officials said.

“BP keeps telling us there is no oil, to skim or otherwise, and we keep telling them there is,” said Orange Beach Coastal Resource Manager Phillip West. “We’re skimming it.”

BP spokesman Ray Melick said that company officials “don’t believe what the mayor’s crew is finding is oil.”

To resolve the dispute, Orange Beach, which is doing its own water quality testing independent of the BP-funded cleanup effort, has agreed, at the oil company’s request, to call Alabama Department of Environmental Management scientists to skimming sites to collect samples for third-party analysis.

“There is a dispute between the two crews that we need to resolve,” Melick said. “The only way we know how to do that is science.”

City officials said samples collected last week from local waters tested positive for the presence of hydrocarbons, but BP rejected those findings because state regulators were not involved. An invitation to jointly collect samples on Thursday was turned down by a local BP official because of the morning’s stormy weather, said Kit Alexander, Orange Beach’s director of Engineering and Environmental Services.

“We’re going to keep trying to get them to come out with us,” she said.

The first reports of oil washing ashore were made Wednesday night, said the Coast Guard’s Kyle Niemi. Oily debris and a staining material covered a surfside area roughly 1,000 feet long and 10 feet wide near the Gulf State Park fishing pier, the chief petty officer said.

Some of what washed up was algae, Niemi said, but it was clear that oil in varying states also rode the rough surf ashore.

“It’s not unlikely that we’ll see more of this,” Niemi said.

By midday Thursday there was still evidence of the state park landfall despite a morning cleanup, from tarballs and clumps of oiled seaweed beneath the pier to tide lines drawn in yellow stains.

About a mile to the east, in Orange Beach, a patch of beach was marred by a black goulash of oil and bits of coarse, buoyant seaweed. The breeze carried the pungent odor of petroleum. And the surf flickered as a translucent sheen shattered and bubbled at the shoreline.

Though the most significant landfall was at Gulf State Park and in western Orange Beach, reports of oil Thursday ranged from stained beaches at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan peninsula and tarballs along the Florida Panhandle’s Navarre Beach.

Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island officials said Thursday that they had no new reports of oil coming ashore.

In Mississippi, Coast Guard and state officials said they planned to step up the search for submerged oil, including boosting the area’s vessels of opportunity fleet from 32 boats to 48 in the coming days to carry out that mission.

We just want to go the extra distance and make sure it is not there,” said Nick Gatian, of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. “If it is there, we want to find it.”

Last week the National Incident Command published a paper spelling out where government scientists believe the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed from BP’s runaway well has gone since the April 20 explosion. A shade over a quarter of the spilled oil remains in the environment buried in sand, floating around as sheen and in weathered bits, or lingering below the water’s surface, wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey scientists.

Despite the government’s acknowledgments, Orange Beach officials say they have had to battle to keep BP focused on cleanup.

“We’re going to get very vocal and demand that they have resources down here to protect these beaches and back bays,” Kennon said. “I really believe they’re trying to sneak out the back door as soon as possible.”

For BP’s part, Melick said, “we fully expect to be here for a few years.”

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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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