USF Geologists Find Beaches Teeming With Tiny Tar Balls

Even after the BP “clean up,” impacted beaches littered with tiny tar balls and buried oil, USF report states.



By Vickie Chachere News Manager


TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 5, 2010) – As researchers from USF’s Coastal Research Laboratory examined miles of beaches of north Florida and Alabama last month, they discovered beaches hit by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill and then “cleaned” by BP crews were anything but clean.


The sand, on the surface, looked better after crews had passed and was somewhat whiter, the scientists noted. But when University of South Florida beach geologist Ping Wang and researchers from his lab looked closer into the once pristine white quartz sands, they found that after beach-cleaning machines had combed the area, the beach was covered with thousands of tiny tar balls.


Furthermore, the beach cleanup efforts were doing nothing to address layers of oil buried inches below the sand and accounting for possibly more than half of the beach contamination.


“We estimate that less than 25% of the overall oil contamination, including both surficial and buried oil was cleaned,” Wang and PhD student Tiffany Roberts wrote in a report documenting the research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.


(Click here to read the entire report and view several photographs included in the report.)


“The on-going cleanup efforts emphasize the removal of discrete beached tar balls, tar patties and perhaps tar cakes on the surface. This may be adequate for lightly contaminated beaches without other forms of contamination nor buried oil. However, the ongoing cleanup efforts were not effective for the other forms of surface contamination including oil stains, oil sheets, and the numerous small tar balls (both “naturally” occurring and broken apart by machines).  … Much more thorough beach cleanup is necessary before the proposed scale back by BP.”


Wang and members of USF’s Coastal Research Laboratory have repeatedly surveyed beaches in Florida’s Panhandle and Alabama in the months since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon well blowout created the nation’s worst environmental disaster. Their first visits occurred before Florida’s northwest beaches were hit by the waves of oil; their fourth visit coming after Hurricane Alex swept through the Gulf in July.


The group observed BP crews cleaning the beaches over three weeks, noting that after the cleanup efforts relatively small amounts of new oil washed onshore.


 The incidences of “cleaned” beaches with widespread contamination was still evident and was found along tens of miles of Alabama and northern Florida beaches, Wang said. He noted that heavily-used public beaches appeared to have been cleaned up more carefully, yet in other areas the clean-up efforts were largely superficial, leaving widespread amounts of oil crushed into small tar balls and mixed with clean, white sand.


Most of the buried oil was not cleaned by BP crews, which Wang documented in photographs showing oil up to 7 inches thick buried as deep as 20-inches below the sand. Oil is buried beneath the sands as waves wash onto the beach, loosening the packed sand and allowing the heavier oil to sink.


The concern is buried oil will remain in the heavily-used beach environment longer because it cannot be broken down by sunlight as surface oil is, the researchers said. More thorough beach cleaning efforts are needed before beaches affected by the spill can be declared clean, they conclude.


“A comprehensive beach cleanup plan should be designed based on a solid understanding of the various forms of oil contamination and their spatial distributions alongshore and across-shore,” Wang wrote in his report. “As discussed below, based on what we have observed in the field and what has been posted on the BP website, the cleanup efforts are largely superficial.”


Working on the surveys were the members of USF’s Geology oil spill research team: Rip Kirby, Jun Cheng, Katherine E. Brutsche, Mark H. Horwitz and Stoddard Pickrel.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.