Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Look Back at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: 3

I hear a lot of feedback about the process of cleaning the beach (working at a bar opens me up to a lot of whining, complaining, and education), and most of the comments are far off from the truth. I don't know much about dealing with this oil spill...I'm just a math and science ignorant writer, bartending during the day and searching for turtles at night. But I'm out there working, so here is what I do and what I have learned:

First off, the oil on the beach is bad. It's really bad. And worst of all, most of it is hidden. The sun melts the oil during the day, sinking it below the sand. The sand is also caught by the wind and constantly buries new oil washing up. Want proof? Head down to any beach, 5, 10, 15, 25 feet from the wrack line, and start digging. You WILL find oil. 6, 8 inches below the beautiful white fluffy surface of our beach lie all of BP's lies in thick, orangey black streaks and patties. The sand will stick to your hands when you try to brush it off, and the waxy feeling will remain until you get to some good soap and water. I found this while digging for turtle eggs, and Mama T did too, as she did not lay in that spot after all.

I was working on the beach the night before last and the oil washing up was the worst I have seen. I say this for several reasons. 1. It was extremely plentiful, filling viscous pools and washing over our just-cleaned sand. 2. There were a variety of textures: chocolate mousse oil, thick mud oil, diluted rust colored oil, and thick brown foam. 3. For the first time, I witnessed oil and water seeping up from the ground. In a newly cleaned patch of sand, when an atv would cross over or I would make a footprint, the tainted water would fill the impression almost immediately. This is near the water line, where the sand below the surface is damp. 4. It seems the diluted oil is obviously so due to dispersants. The machines only pick up tar balls, aka weathered oil, and this oil cannot weather due to the chemicals breaking it down. This cannot be properly cleaned by hand either, and the sand is eventually discarded (if not simply buried by the wind and water).

We don't deal with this freshly washed up oil. Our machines sift tar balls out of dry or damp sand, and do so at a fair success level. The tar balls might be large...fist size, golf ball size, all the way down to nickel size, dime size, smaller. The tar balls are there even though they aren't always seen from a distance. Once they collect a full load of tar balls and trash, the hazardous material is collected and dumped in specially outfitted dumpsters.

For me, this system is a positive effort: our operators are local and care as ferociously about the beach as we do; the contract is through a local company, which helps our economy and is extremely important to me as a resident of this city and this state.

We work at night, from 9 PM-7 AM because it's cool enough that the tar is solidified rather than its softer daytime form. We run with 6 or 7 large sifting machines normally, which means 6 or 7 turtle team armed ATVs accompanying. We flank the machines, searching as we move for turtle tracks, turtle nests, or the mama turtles themselves. We have been finding each of these on a fairly regular basis. In the case that we find something, we shut down the entire operation, mark the tracks with wooden stakes and florescent tape, or, in the case of a turtle mother, watch excitedly and wait until she is finished nesting.

It is the most fulfilling job I have ever had.

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