Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Weekend Beach Business: Tuesday July 6 BP Oil Spill Update

"The citizens whom BP's chairman famously called 'the small people' need to unite — to clamp down on powerful corporations, hold government more accountable and stiffen environmental regulations."

--Chris Dargusch, quoted by Associated Press, July 5, 2010
1. Oilcast.

Prevailing southeasterly winds have been pushing the bulk of the oil spill closest to the Gulf Coast westward from Pensacola Beach back toward where it came from. Still, as the latest NOAA oil forecast shows (see above) Santa Rosa Island isn't quite out of the zone of possible tarballs for the coming few days. If the past weekend is any guide, however, any evidence of oil on the beach should be light and scattered.

The week continues with rain and breezy conditions which are likely to continue intermittently through the next couple of days. East-Southeast winds will continue through Wednesday, then turn to southerly and southwesterly winds through the weekend. One way or another, the oil will return.

2. Weekend Beach Business.

Thyrie Bland for the PNJ has it about right: there were few people and little oil to be seen on the beach July 4. The changeable weather had as much to do with the thin crowds as any oil news.
According to Reuters News:

The impact on the Gulf of Mexico tourist industry was evident on Sunday, the 76th day of the disaster, as dozens of workers picked up tar balls along Pensacola Beach.

"It's ... sad to see the beach is not as crowded as it normally is, there's not as many people here. Not as many people in the restaurants. Very sad because you know they need the business," said Derek Robbins, a tourist from Houston who has been coming to Pensacola every year for decades.

We didn't see it as quite that bad the rest of the weekend. The dirty little secret of beach businesses, as a souvenir shop owner told us a few years ago, is that most of them pray for sun to draw large crowds to the beach and hope for rain once they get here to send everybody inside to spend their money.

This past weekend, half their prayers were answered. While the beaches were eerily empty, several businesses seemed to be doing a fair amount of business. The rain didn't keep everyone away.

In fact, the crowds at the major restaurants and bars we saw were fairly decent, all things considered; more like a moderately good weekend in the shoulder season. Parking was at a premium only for a short time on Sunday, when some who wanted to dine at the boardwalk had to park across the street at Casino Beach.

Monday, a steady crowd kept the staff of the new dining room and bar at the Margaritaville Beach Hotel hopping, but no one we saw had to wait for a seat. Ditto for The Grand Marlin, where we saw the Pelican Rescue Squad.

3. Beach Oil Dissonance.

A few foolhardy youngsters ventured unsupervised into the Gulf (left), although not much beyond their waists. Vigorous waves and rip currents presented a more immediate and visible threat to their safety than the occasional tarballs or emulsified oil.

The Associated Press quoted various beach-goers about their reaction to the oil-fouled beaches of the Gulf Coast. Words like "glum"... "dispirited" ... 'frustrated'... and "ridiculous" were descriptive of the attitudes of both tourists and locals.

Our favorite quote was from Chris Dargusch, a part-time resident of Seaside, Florida:
The citizens whom BP's chairman famously called "the small people" need to unite — to clamp down on powerful corporations, hold government more accountable and stiffen environmental regulations.

"The small people are this country," she said.

An accompanying photo from Dauphin Island encapsulates the discordance, or whatever one might call it, of swimming in oil-infested waters (see left). Sunbathers stripped down almost to nothing but their bare skin enter the water while a nearby cleanup-worker wearing a protective haz-mat suit picks up toxic tarballs.

Someone's got it wrong, there.

4. Underwater Hazards.

One explanation for the disparate approaches to toxic oil tarballs likely is that most visitors do not know the risks they are running to their health when they swim in water infected by the oil spill.

How could they? Even scientists have never before seen an oil spill of this size or intensity combined with the huge amounts of dispersants BP has been dumping to hide the hazardous substance from view. Most are reluctant to announce findings until they have conducted reproducible long-term experimental results.

But what they repeatedly say is, it's not just the oil you see that presents a danger. Because of the dispersants which break the oil down to microscopic particles, it's also the invisible risks posed by "submerged oil."

Some sense of what those risks represent for humans can be seen in a video about how it has affected fish and shellfish. "Prophetic Seer" uploaded the video on July 4 for the Mobile Register newspaper:

5. Oil Beneath the Sand.

Oil lies hidden beneath superficially clean-looking sand, too, as National Geographic reports based upon an inspection by two geologists of Pensacola Beach sand late last week:
Oil patties and tarballs were discovered as deep as 2 feet (0.6 meter) beneath beaches dirtied by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill—the deepest oil yet found by a team of University of South Florida coastal geologists that's been studying the effects of the oil spill on Gulf beaches since early May. The previous record had been 6 inches (about 15 centimeters) deep, said geologist Ping Wang, the team's leader.

The discoveries suggest that toxic oil lies hidden under even "clean" patches of beaches along the U.S. Gulf Coast—and that oil-spill cleanup crews are only scratching the surface.

Because the buried oil is both harder to clean and slower to break down, it could be a long-lasting threat to beachgoers, both animal and human, experts say.
The under-sand oil presents a potential danger to everyone, but especially children.
If [oil's] buried and you have a five-year-old out here next summer building a sand castle and they uncover a layer of tar and oil, that's not going to be good," said Tiffany Roberts, a Ph.D. student working in Wang's lab.

Contact with oil can cause skin irritation, and inhaling evaporated oil particles may cause nausea, headache, and dizziness—ailments already reported by some Gulf oil spill cleanup workers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It also poisons "small sand-dwelling invertebrates, such as bloodworms, which could be killed by the oil" or eaten by shore birds.

6. No Fishing.

NOAA scientists celebrated the Fourth of July by expanding the no-fishing zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It now encompasses about one-third of the entire Gulf. Here's the latest dead zone fish map:

In case you're wondering if we ate any sea food on the beach this weekend, the answer is yes. Relying on our memory and a friend's I-phone to quickly surf the 'net, we ordered only seafood known to inhabit waters other than the northern Gulf of Mexico. The calamari was excellent.

The Alaskan king crab legs looked good, too, although we were a little squeamish about them since the Exxon Valdez oil still fouls the water and shoreline of Prince William Sound. Twenty- one years after the Exxon Valdez tanker "ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound" and spilled eleven million gallons of oil" the toxic oil is still there in overhwelming quantities:
To the naked eye, Prince William Sound may appear "normal." Visitors can see spectacular, unspoiled vistas of islands surrounded by blue-green waters and mountain-rimmed fjords. But if you look beneath the surface, oil continues to contaminate beaches, national parks and designated wilderness.

In fact, the Office of Technology Assessment estimated beach cleanup and oil skinning recovered only 3-4 percent of the Exxon Valdez oil, and studies by government scientists estimated that only 14 percent of the oil was removed during cleanup operations.
When a wait-person -- who was born after the Exxon-Valdez disaster -- couldn't verify that the crab legs came from some other, oil-free part of Alaska, we passed.

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