The State of Our Beaches: Defining What “Clean” Means


You knew when that all-clear federal report on beach cleanup was released last weekend that the BP exodus was already in the works. Now Gulf beach communities are finding out that, just as with seafood safety, the trick is to control the standards by defining exactly what “safe” or “clean” means. When you’re able to manipulate the standards, you can sound the “all clear” on just about anything.

WKRG-TV out of Mobile has a report that illustrates the point. There are beaches in Alabama (and Louisiana and Mississippi and Florida) where tar balls and mats abound and re-oilings are frequent, but BP is packing its bags and clearing out. According to company officials, the beaches are clean – hey, they have a government report that says so. Never mind what the locals on the ground are saying and seeing.

“There is no doubt, March 1st is their deadline and they’re going to leave us high and dry.” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon told told WKRG, adding that the report is basically a get out of jail free card for BP. “This whole thing is bizarre to me because I thought their whole original mandate was to clean up the mess. They have not cleaned up the mess. I want that understood.”

And this from Larry Dalgo, resident of Fort Morgan, Ala., on what’s happening on many beaches with regard to remnant oil: “…the wind will blow it and cover it up and then it’ll blow from the other direction and uncover it and that’s what you’re seeing here, just tons of it.”

Again, the strategy is to simply control what “clean” means. For example, the government isn’t going to question airborne accumulation into residential neighborhoods or land-farming large areas because those standards would be much too tough for BP to achieve – instead we’ll get useless drivel about the most superficial of cleanups and how further cleaning could do more harm to the environment than good. Sounds like a cop out to me, particularly when we continue to hear reports of tar balls littering beaches, huge tar mats lurking just offshore and swaths of shoreline being re-oiled after rough weather.

If BP officials won’t “make it right” on their own and the Obama Administration lets them off the hook, we must rely on the courts to hold BP accountable and to ensure our beaches are cleaned completely and restored to their pre-spill condition. Sadly, it appears we have nowhere else to turn.

Here’s the WKRG story on the cleanup draw down:

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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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