BP proposes deep cleaning of Louisiana beaches in aftermath of Hurricane Isaac

09 12, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

BP wants to "deep clean" the sand on beaches along the Louisiana coastline where tar balls and tar mats from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were uncovered by Hurricane Isaac, BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization President Mike Utsler said Tuesday. Utsler said the uncovering of tar by Isaac's eroding winds, surge and wave provides the company with an opportunity to target cleaning at areas with oil from its Macondo well before sand is redeposited by new storms. And removal of the contaminants will reduce future complaints, he said.

"This is not a tale about just Hurricane Isaac and its consequences and impact," Utsler said. "It's about three hurricane seasons, and it began with (tropical storms) Alex and Bonnie in 2010. Those tropical storms pushed tons of sand and oil onto the beaches and covered the oil on the beaches, burying them at significant depth."

The intensive cleaning process would mirror the mechanics of children's sand-sifting toys to remove contaminants from as deep as 4 feet.

In Alabama in the months after the spill, BP used a caterpillar-tracked machine called the Sand Shark to dig up sand with metal augurs, throwing it onto a conveyor belt that dumped it into a separate machine containing filters that remove material larger than 2 millimeters, allowing the cleaned sand to spill back onto the beach. .

BP is targeting beach segments on Grand Terre Island, Grand Isle, Fourchon Beach and Elmer's Island for the cleaning process, which must still be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, several federal natural resource agencies and the state of Louisiana.

State officials have complained of tar balls and tar mats of weathered oil from BP's Macondo well washing ashore or being uncovered along those beaches for the past two years. When the oil first came ashore after the April 2010 accident, it quickly mixed with sand. The remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie churned sand atop the oil along the beaches on July 25, just 10 days after the Macondo well was capped. The oil has been weathering beneath the sand since then, turning into tar-like mats that range in texture from pudding to asphalt.

The sand-cleaning process was used extensively on tourist beaches in Mississippi, Alabama and three counties along the Florida panhandle. Many of those "amenity" beaches, as BP refers to them, have a history of being "nourished" with sand from the Gulf of Mexico or other locations, as they have eroded away over the years.

BP had proposed the sand-cleaning for several of the same beaches -- and used it for part of the Grand Isle beachfront -- immediately after the spill, but its use was limited because of concerns that the process would destroy microbes and larger organisms living in the sand. Many of Louisiana's beaches also contain a greater percentage of clay particles, which help reduce erosion.

Louisiana officials said they had received BP's proposal Tuesday morning and were reviewing it, but remained concerned about possible environmental damage.

"When you deep-clean, you wash out suspended sediment, reduce the compaction rate, and that results in a loss of sand from the beaches," said Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. "When they used the method on Grand Isle, they didn't go down to 4 or 5 feet, which is what they're requesting now."

The Wisner Donation Trust, which owns Fourchon Beach, has been battling BP over erosion it contends the company's contractors caused, even without using the more invasive process.

A spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group based in New Orleans, said his organization also is concerned about the effects of an extensive sand cleaning operation on fragile organisms in the beach.

"While we want BP to clean up their oil, we don't want BP to further devastate the very natural resources they've already damaged," said Aaron Viles, deputy director of the organization.

Utsler said it's still unclear whether Isaac has revealed additional oil at locations in Louisiana other than the beaches.

"We have not been able to extensively access Louisiana marshlands yet, primarily due to the high water conditions," he said. "Where we have been able to access, we've not seen any evidence at this point in those assessments of Macondo re-oiling."

He also pointed out that some tar balls found on Grand Isle and oil reported elsewhere in Louisiana waters is not all linked to the Macondo well.

"We do see examples where there's been boom deployed, and the U.S. Coast Guard and others are working to support existing spills that have occurred post-Isaac," he said.

Graves questioned Utsler's contention that BP was finding weathered Macondo oil mostly at locations that are already part of the company's clean-up operations.

"They've refused to look in any areas that are out of active response, so of course they haven't found any. Because they aren't looking for it," he said. "From Keelboat Pass in St. Bernard Parish to Lafourche Parish, we've had reports of new oiling.

"They're still doing daily patrols on hundreds of miles of beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi," he said. "In Louisiana, we only have tens of miles of beaches, but we have 7,800 miles of tidal shoreline. So how can they say with any degree of certainty that there are wetland areas that don't have oil mats?"

Graves also said that the state has been demanding maps of known locations of tar mats along Louisiana's beaches from BP, who has refused to turn them over.

"They told us on numerous occasions that they had some data or modeling indicating where the oil was buried," Graves said. "We've asked in writing for that information so we can take more steps ourselves."

Utsler said that in Isaac's aftermath, company contractors also are responding to new reports of tar balls in three Florida counties, including tar mats at the Fort Pickens and Fort McRae national parks, which were not targeted with the deep-cleaning process.

In Alabama, tar balls washed ashore sporadically along several tourist beaches, and tar mats were exposed at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

In Mississippi, it's still unclear whether tar mats and tar balls have shown up on the state's barrier islands because the beaches are still strewn with other storm debris, he said.