Revenge of the Tarballs

L(This blog was originally published on OnEarth.com)     Last Thursday, I took a walk along the Gulf of Mexico in the Bon Secour National Widlife Refuge in Alabama. I had walked that same beach during the height of the BP oil spill last summer, and though seventeen months had passed since the Macondo Well exploded, and a year had passed since the same well had been declared capped and the tragedy over, you wouldn't have known it if you had been with me.

Up the beach, to my west, dozens of BP workers combed the sand for a fresh crop of tarballs that had come in with Tropical Storm Lee and a thunderstorm that had hit earlier that day. And it wasn't just the tarballs that were fresh: BP was back in the news. Over the span of the last couple of weeks, BP has been declared legally culpable in last summer's Gulf disaster; the BP spill was declared the origin of the new tarballs; and a new scientific study from Auburn University has concluded that the oil on the Gulf floor isn't degrading quite as fast as the earlier, cheerier scientific reports suggested.  Finally, this week marks the first time that BP has submitted a new deepwater exploration plan in the Gulf since the spill.

Still, the national news didn't do justice to what I was seeing with my own eyes. From the newspaper articles I had read, you would have thought that six or seven tarballs had washed ashore, and a few of the old BP regulars had been called up, had a kind of reunion, said, "Hey, what you been doing since last year?" and then set to cleaning. It wasn't like that. The workers were out in force, about forty of them, and after spending a couple of weeks cleaning the more public beaches, they were now turning their attention to this stretch of less-trafficked seashore, where a fresh mess had been tossed up, revealing what BP wanted to keep swept under the Gulf's rug.

I approached a couple of the workers, a man and a woman, who weren't supposed to talk to me, but who, I had learned from experience, usually were so bored after a day of tarball farming that they couldn't help themselves.

"You finding much?" I asked.

The woman held out a net that looked more suited for mullet than oil.

"We've been walking all day," she said. "There are balls all up and down the shore."

The tarballs in the net were the size of quarters, and I mentioned that they didn't look all that big.

"We've got some this big," she said, making a fist.

I thanked her and walked down the beach, away from the workers. A great blue heron barely flew off as I approached, and sanderlings pecked the sand before skittering away. I counted nine natural gas platforms off shore, and soon enough I came upon some tarballs of my own, as well as an orange squiggling line that worked its way down the beach, a kind of foamy stew. This once famously white beach was stained and smeared, as if Dr. Suess's Things One and Two had raced about with cans of red paint.

I hadn't planned on coming to this beach. I was down in the Gulf to hawk my new book about the BP disaster, not to hunt for tarballs. But although I've written the last sentence of that book, the story just keeps on going. I had been eating barbecue chicken and fried okra at a local restaurant called Live Bait when I asked my waitress how the clean-up was going on, and she told me I should drive down to Bon Secour. The locals know that this thing isn't over and that they can expect to see tarballs kicked up by storms for years to come.

The only ones slow on the uptake are the majority of scientists, who have tried to claim the mantle of reason. They have cautioned that it is too soon to make any rash conclusions, that science takes time, and that the studies of the environmental dangers of oil might take years. That's fine, but on the other hand, many of these same scientists are quick to assure the public there is no threat.

George Crozier, director of the Alabama state sea lab at Dauphin Island, told the Associated Press that he doubts that the new tarballs pose much of an environmental danger. But isn't that a fairly rash statement without evidence or long-term studies? Where is the skepticism and caution now? The point is, you can't have it both ways. You can't say that scientists are not allowed to make broad sweeping statements about the dangers of the spill and then turn around and make broad sweepings statements about the fact that there is no danger.

The new report from Auburn is welcome because very few scientists, outside of the University of Georgia's Samantha Joye, have had much negative to say about the way that millions of gallons of oil have affected the Gulf. Many of the Gulf studies are funded by BP, but there are other reasons for this caution. No one wanted to say anything too early and later be proved wrong. Then there is the fact that many scientists, like many people in most professions, are careerists who don't want to scoop themselves by revealing results before they publish them in a paper in a journal. Finally, there is the larger point: scientists are, increasingly, specialists, and can't be expected to see the greater whole.

But it doesn't take a specialist or scientists to see what I am seeing now, and it doesn't take any special observational skills to see this smeared beach. I understand why the cameras are gone. Complacency, boredom, and love of novelty might make us want to turn to something new. But seventeen months later, the oil is still here. It's on my feet, and it's on the skeletal plate of the blue crab swimming in the pool of orange spew, and it's down on the sand that the sanderlings are picking at. I don't need a scientific report to tell me that something is not right here. You can tell me this is normal, but my eyes tell me it is not.

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