Why Are Tarball-Filled Florida Beaches Still Open?

The BP oil disaster has finally caught up with Florida, as evidenced by this video of a child with tarballs stuck to her feet on Destin Beach. Florida has already begun to close dangerous areas—Pensacola Beach reportedly became the first oil disaster casualty yesterday when it closed due to pools of black sludge in the sands (the Pensacola News Journal reports that the beach is now open). But while the state recently implemented a swimming and fishing ban stretching through 33 miles of the Florida Panhandle, other tarball-littered beaches remain open. Why?

A report from WALB News claims that nickel and dime-sized tar balls (or "tar chips") have been washing onto Destin Beach in increasing numbers. Clean-up crews are already working to remove the oil, but it's hard to make too much of a difference when tar balls continue to wash ashore with every wave.

Destin Beach isn't alone—GovMonitor says that 61 miles of Florida beaches are currently oiled. The website reports:

Tar balls, tar patties and mousse continue to be found on Panama City Beach, Destin, Ft Walton, Pensacola Beaches and throughout Northwest Florida, with the heaviest impacts reported between Escambia and Walton Counties. According to NOAA, tar balls do not pose a health risk to the average person, but visitors are advised not to pick them up. The majority of impacts to Florida’s shoreline will likely be highly weathered, in the form of tar balls, oil sheen, tar mats or mousse – a pudding-like oil/water mixture that could be brown, rust or orange in color.

So tar balls aren't all that toxic. But the NOAA explains (PDF) that people who are especially sensitive to hydrocarbons found in crude oil can develop rashes or allergic reactions from even the briefest of contact with the gooey balls. And, according to the National Library of Medicine's Tox Town website, extended contact with crude oil can cause skin reddening, edema, and burning of the skin. That makes the tar balls dangerous enough for the Coast Guard to warn that they should only be picked up by trained personnel.

We have called Governor Charlie Crist's office repeatedly to ask about the tar ball issue, but no one will talk to us. Florida doesn't want to close its beaches prematurely, to be sure, but as we said yesterday, the state could at least consider scrapping BP-funded ads claiming that local beaches are safe—especially since in some cases tar balls are showing up en masse practically overnight (i.e. on Destin Beach). The money might be better spent on clean-up efforts.

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • david emley

    how solid are the tar balls? are they solid enough to sculpt or put together in a sculpture? i obviously am a sculptor who recycles everything and wanted to try these tar balls if they are solid enough.

  • Mark Stoiber

    The reality is that these tar balls are going to be part of the beach landscape for some time to come. It will get to the point that beaches will be rated on their "tar ball content". Beaches will need to subcontract to cleaning crews to keep the tar ball content under control. Will this be the responsibility of BP and how long will BP be on the hook for this?


  • M lyall

    I've never been to Florida or it's beaches (I will, eventually) but I have been to many beaches all over the world. I have a problem with the thought of closing beaches because of Oil. Whenever I've been to Australia, as an example, the beaches might close for dangerous currents, shark sightings or something else (natural). When these "closures" occur not as many people go to the beach.

    I would think... It is HIGHLY important not to close beaches in Florida. This way people will continue to go and be able to experience first hand the disgusting oil that is contaminating your beaches. Put up signs and warnings about risks regarding what might be encountered and sent the advertising bill to BP.

    I am not able to be down there experiencing the consequences of the spill in the gulf personally but I'm sure I will eventually be one of the many to experience its effects. I do think it is important for as many people as possible to have access to the beaches so they can witness first hand and be affected by BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

    If being outside or going to the beach is part of your lifestyle and a sense of enjoyment? This is something that, I would imagine, could not be ignored or hidden by "beach closures". I would hope that it would be an opportunity to get involved and work to protect the "lifestyle" you love and cherish.

    I live in Vancouver, we have problems of our own but we don't have tar balls (or "tar chips") floating into our beaches... If we did, I wouldn't want to stay at home, I'd be pissed.

    Why Are Tarball-Filled Florida Beaches Still Open? because if they weren't... people wouldn't be as pissed off as they should be.

  • Michael Nicolson

    Growing up in Fort Lauderdale during the 60's and 70's, globs of oil, or tar as we called it, were a common occurrence on the beaches. There was enough that there was always plastic jugs of mineral spirits tied to a post by the showers and you'd have to clean the blackish-brown spots off your feet every time you'd leave the beach. I found out much later that this was from oil tankers cleaning out their storage tanks once they'd left port. I don't know how toxic it was but there wasn't any physical effects and we certainly didn't stop going to the beach because of it.

    Come on Fast Company, don't be slow. People are going to have to live with this for the indefinite future. Instead of scaring everybody away from the beaches, maybe the innovative thing to do would be teach people how to protect themselves from the oil much in the same way they've learned to protect themselves from the sun.

  • MIke

    Hey, you should get together with other manufacturers of this type of aeration tubing and talk to members of Louisiana state congress to get them to pass a regulation requiring oil companies to install this along their oil production pipes in the gu, lf. this would benefit everyone, it would increase the rate at which oil is biodegraded so it won't reach the shore and it would increase fish stocks. It would be a remarkably efficient, natural, and cost effective, simple to implement plan to deal with oil spills. All they would have to do is flip a switch, turn on the air pumps, and the entire gulf oil areas would be full of air bubbles, oxygenating the water.