PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Oil residue from the BP spill is still being hauled off by the truckload each day from the beaches of the barrier islands off the Mississippi Gulf coast.
In fact, it is likely more oil tar has been cleaned from the islands in the fall and winter than at the height of the spill last summer, because larger crews of BP workers can now get to the beaches and inlets. They had been restricted to foot traffic while birds and turtles were nesting.
Terry Morris, a spokesman for the Gulf Islands National Seashore, said they even have been able to use beach-cleaning machinery on some of the island beaches this fall to expedite the cleanup. But they aren’t using anything as intrusive as they have used on the popular public beaches of the mainland, because the islands beaches are more environmentally sensitive.
“The islands, 11 miles out, got more oil than the mainland of Mississippi. They were the first line of defense,” Morris said. “There’s an awful lot of oil product being picked up.”
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During the height of the spill, birds and turtles were nesting on the tips of the islands so BP could run only small work crews. It couldn’t risk disturbing the nests or killing the eggs, Morris said.
It wasn’t until late August or September that crews of 80 to 150 could hit the islands and cleanup there could begin in earnest.
In September, tar- and oil-debris recovery from the islands of Petit Bois, Horn, Cat and East and West Ship hit 2 million pounds, or 1,000 tons. Since then, the amount has likely doubled, officials said.
According to BP figures, since June crews have recovered 1.38 million pounds from Horn alone and 1.16 million pounds from Petit Bois, the two islands officially designated national wilderness areas. The total from all the islands is 2.94 million pounds.
In comparison, crews on the mainland have gleaned 372,000 pounds since June, the most coming from Harrison County with 198,000 pounds and Jackson County with 139,400 pounds, according to figures supplied by BP spokesman Ray Melick this week.
Some of what’s being recovered on the island beaches has been there since the summer, buried by sand and uncovered by the strong north winds of fall and winter.
Some of it is tar patties continuing to wash up from the Gulf as part of the 84 million gallons the government estimates remain of the more than 200 million gallons that gushed from the crippled well in the months after the April 20 disaster.
On Thursday, a crew of 80 on Horn Island uncovered a tar patty 3 inches thick and 4 to 5 feet long, park rangers said. On Tuesday, BP said crews picked up more than a ton on Horn Island and eight tons on Petit Bois.
Morris said when Tropical Storm Bonnie entered the Gulf in late July, it sent 6- to 10-foot waves containing oil debris crashing onto the south beaches of the islands.
“It drove the tar high on the beaches and we’re still dealing with that today,” he said.
Crews leave an area clean one day, and wind uncovers more to clean up the next. Or they find more as they dig deeper.
What’s crucial at this point is crews get as much tar off the islands as possible, without damaging the beaches, before the bird-nesting season begins again in March, Morris said.
Colonies of snowy plovers, least terns, gulls and black skimmers will begin arriving in mid-March for courting and nesting, and the cleanup will have to be scaled back, he said.
The birds will arrive by the thousands and nest mostly on the tips of the islands.
“They’re so far out, most people don’t know about these nesting colonies,” Morris said. “But sections of the islands will be closed to all foot traffic.”
BP’s Melick said they expect to be cleaning island beaches through the summer. Any longer than that, “we just don’t know,” he said.
But there will come a time when the federal government, with the help of Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources, will define clean.
“At some point they’ll have to come up with a designation of clean, because they’ll never get it all,” Horn Island ranger Ben Moore said.
“And at some point, digging up oil (tar) will be more detrimental to the island environment than leaving what’s there.”