BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Tar balls that were washed onto Gulf of Mexico beaches by Tropical Storm Lee earlier this month show that oil left over from last year’s
Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly, and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.
The study concluded that mats of oil - not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons - are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.
BP did not immediately comment on the study, but the company added cleanup crews and extended their hours after large patches of tar balls polluted the white sand at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach starting around Sept. 6.
Tar balls also washed ashore in Pensacola, Fla., which is to the east and was farther from the storm’s path.
George Crozier, a marine scientist, said the findings make sense because submerged oil degrades slowly due to the relatively low amount of oxygen in the gulf’s sandy bottom.
“It weathered to some extent after it moved from southern Louisiana to Alabama . . . but not much has happened to it since then,’’ said Crozier, longtime director of the state sea laboratory at Dauphin Island.