Tropical Storm Lee Exposes Old Oil from BP Spill in Louisiana

September 14, 2011

BP PLC is sending cleanup crews back to Fourchon Beach because erosion from Tropical Storm Lee unearthed miles of tar balls, tar mats and abandoned cleanup equipment left from last year’s oil spill.

Six task forces – 90 workers and 17 technicians – will work a seven-day-a-week schedule to clean up the beach, BP spokesman Curtis Thomas told The Courier.

“We knew this was coming,” Thomas said. “That’s why we’ve had this manpower on standby.”

The cleanup will be phased in over the next week, Thomas said. He said tar balls were reported on other area beaches, but not to the extent that they appeared on Fourchon Beach.

In addition to the old oil, the erosion uncovered PVC pipes used to secure boom and snares used to absorb oil.

Forrest Travirca, a field inspector for the Edward Wisner Donation – a private land trust that owns about 9.5 miles of Fourchon Beach – said he found the oil Sunday while checking for damage from Tropical Storm Lee. About eight miles of the beach are affected, he said.

Travirca said at least four miles of the beach was littered with tar balls. He also gave the newspaper photographs of large numbers of chunks of tar – too big to be considered tar balls – broken off of buried tar mats.

The storm also caused extreme erosion to the beach, Travirca said. At Belle Pass, all of the sand washed off, leaving hard clay. Cleanup work increased the risk of erosion in spots where workers dug holes to unearth oil and left loose, sifted sand in its place, Travirca said.

Wisner officials have complained that the cleanup at Fourchon was superficial, failing to remove large tar mats buried in the surf and sand.

In April, a year after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and began leaking approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Travirca took a Courier and Comet reporter and photographer on a tour of Fourchon Beach, unearthing lots of pungent, black oil inches under the surface.

Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, said that during any spill, as the oil degrades and begins moving into shore, it will begin combining with sand, becoming heavier and heavier. Eventually it will either make it to shore or become buried in the surf zone, where it remains until rough surf stirs it up.

The degraded oil is not as toxic as fresh oil, but still has some toxicity, St. Pé said. And buried oil doesn’t degrade as fast as oil that is exposed to oxygen and sunlight, so it may retain more of its toxic components for a longer time.

St. Pé said that it’s likely we’ll continue to see the remnants of the BP spill showing up on Louisiana beaches for a long time as old oil is unearthed and makes its way to shore.

“It should diminish with time,” St. Pé said. “We’ve had a heck of a lot of movement in the bottom sediments with Lee, so the next storm or hurricane is going to bring oil onto beaches, but it will be less and less. The BP spill was an extremely large oil spill, so we’ll be seeing this for a long time.

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