East Grand Terre Island, LA– Like large clumps of asphalt, hardened oil clings to the beachfront on this Louisiana barrier island.
“To be able to come out here and use any kind of chemicals or dispersant to break this up would be pretty tough.”
These leftovers from the BP oil disaster of two years ago go unattended.
In the weeks after the April 22, 2010 rig disaster, East Grand Terre was in the bullseye, among the hardest hit areas.
Some of the first images of pelicans and other oiled birds, gasping for air, came from East Grand Terre.
Today, officials deal with dramatically less oil, and the remnants range from a crusty shell in places to thin sheen in the marsh grasses.
“By the time the oil had gone to shore, it was pretty heavily oiled,” said Dr. Ed Overton, professor emeritus at the LSU School of Coast and the Environment.
Nature has performed its magic on much of the oil, which Overton describes as weathered and no longer soluble.
“It’s more of aesthetic value than an ecological value, but that nevertheless has an impact on people coming to the beach.”
On gulf coast beaches, Overton explained oil that mixed with sand and buried below the surface “will stay there essentially forever.”
Once cut off from oxygen, oil can last for decades.
33 years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, locals still find oil buried under rocky beaches.
However, Overton believes in the case of BP the time frame will be considerably less.
For all the controversy surrounding dispersants, including the health effects on humans and gulf sea life, Overton sees it as the lesser of two evils.
“You can put a bulldozer on a beach and go down and scrape that,” Overton said. “You can’t do that in the marsh.”
He believes dispersants spared the vulnerable Louisiana marsh from the effects of millions of gallons of crude hitting the shoreline.
“We were in a very vulnerable position. So, we had to do something to keep that oil from coming ashore.”
Oil is actually hundreds of thousands of different chemicals, from the lightest ones made into products like gasoline to heavier, asphalt-like substances.
“That stuff doesn’t degrade,” Overton said. “That’s why we make it into roads.”
The tougher, tar ball material will be what lasts longest.
“We are definitely in the recovery stage.”
Nevertheless, Overton predicted the gulf coast will be seeing tar balls wash ashore in recognizable quantities for another 4 to 5 years.