A problem lurks under the sand on the Gulf Coast, but some argue the best thing to do is — nothing.
Walk to a seemingly pristine patch of sand, plop down in a chair and start digging with your bare feet and chances are you'll walk away with gooey tar between your toes. So far, workers hired by BP to clean oil off beaches have skimmed only the surface, using shovels or sifting machines.
The oil underneath is sometimes buried by the tides before workers can get to it. Now the company is planning a deeper cleaning program that could include washing or incinerating sand once the blown-out oil undersea well is plugged and the gusher stopped off the coast of Louisiana.
Meanwhile, BP managing director Bob Dudley said the spewing oil from the underwater well could possibly be stopped before the end of the month, but then said it's unlikely.
"In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told The Wall Street Journal.
But he added that the "perfect case" is threatened by the hurricane season.
As for cleaning the beaches, some experts question whether it's better to just let nature run its course, in part because oil that weathers on beaches isn't considered as much of a health hazard as fresh crude. Some environmentalists and local officials fret about harm to the ecosystem and tourism.
"We have to have sand that is just as clean as it was before the spill," said Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, a popular tourist stretch reaching to the Florida state line.
George Crozier, a marine scientist and director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said tourism's the only real reason to dig up the buried oil.
"Buried is buried. It will get carved up by a hurricane at some point, but I see no particular advantage to digging it up," he said. "It's a human environmental hazard only because people don't want to go to the beach if it's got tar balls on it."
Meanwhile out in the Gulf of Mexico, choppy seas held up oil skimming operations all along the Gulf coast, one more day of interruption in more than week of weather kicked off by the faraway Hurricane Alex.
The weather could be moving on soon. A tropical system developing off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is not expected to cause problems for the Gulf and there is better weather forecast for the weekend.
That could help crews at sea attempting to hook up a third containment vessel to collect oil from the gushing well head at the seafloor. Between 86 million and 168 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. Oil has washed up on the shores of all five Gulf states, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and the latest — Texas.
BP has high hopes to clean it all eventually. Mark DeVries, BP's deputy incident commander in Mobile, envisions a time when no one can tell what hit the beaches during the summer of oil.
"That's our commitment — to return the beaches to the state they were before," Devries said. "We're referring to it as polishing the beaches."
Chuck Kelly knows what a job that will be. He works at Gulf State Park and has been watching as tides bury even the worst oil deposits — slicks hundreds of yards long and inches deep — before cleaning crews can reach them.
"Some oil comes in with a wave, and another wave covers it with sand," he said. "It's just like a rock or a shell. There's all sorts of things buried in this sand. Now, there's oil."
Judy Haner, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy, favors deep-cleaning because the sand is home to small creatures like sand fleas, which form the base of the coastal food chain.
"They're the ones exposed to (oil) every tidal cycle, and they're living in the sand," she said.
Some creatures could be removed from dirty sand by sifting the material before washing, but others would undoubtedly be killed.
The Orange Beach mayor favors a method familiar along the Gulf Coast: nourishment. After a hurricane scours a beach flat, workers use huge dredges to pump new sand from the floor of the Gulf onto the beach.
That could work if the Gulf floor isn't contaminated, too. No one knows yet how bad it is. Only certain areas of the seabed have beach-quality sand and costs could escalate drastically for sand from farther away, said Phillip West, the city's coastal resources manager. After Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004, it cost $9 million just to renourish Orange Beach.
DeVries, the BP executive, said there is time to develop a plan because the leak isn't expected to be stopped before August. Oil could be hitting the coast through mid-fall. Possible options include washing sand chemically or even heating it in an incinerator to burn off the oil, he said.
The eventual solution could look like what's going on at Grand Isle, La., where officials want to use sand-washers like those already used extensively in Canada to cull tar from vast deposits.
Sand will be collected by sifting machines dubbed "Sandbonis," a reference to the Zamboni machines used to resurface ice rinks. The sand will be dumped into a container, sifted again, and washed with 110-degree water, then mild detergent. It will be tested before eventually being replaced on the beach.
No matter the solution, local officials and would-be beachgoers are frustrated and hope their favorite spots can be saved.
"This is heartbreaking," said Julie Davidson, 42, who drove down to Grand Isle from Kenner to see the effects of the spill. "We usually come down here at least for a long weekend, but there's no reason to now. You can't get in the water, you're afraid of the beach. Why come?"
Associated Press Writer Mary Foster contributed to this report from Grand Isle, La.
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