Tests conducted on the chunks of tar that continue to wash up along Alabama’s shoreline contain exactly the same chemical fingerprint as oil from BP’s massive 2010 oil spill, meaning the oily matter originates from the blown-out Macondo well that fed the Deepwater Horizon rig before it exploded and sank. As if that weren’t bad enough, scientific analyses have found all this tar is still loaded with highly toxic cancer-causing contaminants more than three years later.
Reporters from Montgomery’s WSFA-TV 12 took a short walk on Orange Beach in March and collected two pounds of tar they found there. They then took the tar to Auburn University for testing and discovered the results mean “troubling” news for Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“Some of these compounds, when they get trapped in the tar mats, are persisting,” Dr. Prabhakar Clement of Auburn University’s Civil Engineering Department told WSFA. “Which means they are getting into the environment, which has a potential ramification. We don’t know. We don’t want to scare people,” he said.
“Maybe it will be okay; maybe it won’t,” he told WSFA. “When we tamper with nature, let’s be careful.”
Dr. Clement’s responses reflect the uncertainty that still haunts the Gulf Coast years after BP’s devastating oil spill flooded the northern Gulf with more than 200 million gallons of crude. Most beaches in the parts of the Gulf hard-hit by the oil spill appear to be clean, but it’s what is happening below the water’s surface, unseen by most residents and visitors, that has many scientists raising red flags.
Researchers monitoring the health of the Gulf are finding signs that its ecology has been fundamentally harmed by the oil spill and Corexit, the chemical oil dispersant BP used to effectively “hide” the spill below the surface. Much, if not most, of the oil treated with Corexit remains in the Gulf virtually unchanged since 2010, and the chemical compounds present in this Corexit-crude mixture are 52 times more toxic than the unrefined oil alone.
Plumes of dispersed oil have triggered a massive die-off of plankton and other micro-organisms that form the base of the Gulf’s food chain. Dolphins and turtles continue to die in alarmingly high numbers, and fish are being pulled out of the water with lesions and livers clogged with oil, likely from swimming through clouds of Corexit-treated oil particles.
More than four tons of tar has been removed from Alabama’s shore just since the beginning of 2013, according to the WSFA report. Researchers believe the submerged oil could remain in the Gulf for a century, making occasional appearances on land with every tropical storm and hurricane. What the long-term presence of BP oil in the Gulf implies for future generations isn’t clear because the size of the spill and the geographical area it encompassed are unprecedented.