By Antigone Barton
While authorities still can’t say when, where and how much oil from BP’s Deepwater
Horizon drill site might show up on local beaches, they can say where the first
tar balls spotted here will go next.
Packaged as a hazardous material, they will be overnighted by FedEx to a United States
Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut, to be cleaned, dried and tested to
determine their origin. Whether it turns out to have come from the BP disaster
or from a ship’s bilge, the aim is the same: accountability.
“Did you know they can ‘fingerprint’ tar balls?” Delray resident Laurie Clare asked recently. “I didn’t.”
Clare, a habitual beach walker, learned of this intersection of science and detective
work right before the Fourth of July, when she found a glop of tar on the
“I stepped in it!” she said. “Remember when they used to have kerosene at all the beach exits to get tar off?”
Without that option, she wore it home, where she went online and contacted BP. The
company, in turn, referred her to the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard officer came
by the next day to pick up the plastic bag to which she had transferred the
“They’ve been incredible,” Clare said.
“Have been,” because they’ve returned two more times to pick up tar that Clare has
encountered on the beach in her half-mile walk north from Delray Beach’s
Atlantic Avenue area.
None of it, authorities confirm, has come from the BP site.
“That makes me even madder,” said Clare, pointing out that in addition to the fouling
of ocean waters from the BP disaster, boat owners continue to pollute the
Heightened awareness of beach tar has made oil and water a harder mix to ignore than ever, though.
“I’ve been stationed here for two years,” said Lt. Rodney Wert of the U.S. Coast
Marine Safety Detachment, Lake Worth, which covers from Melbourne to Lantana.
“In the past two years before the spill, I never got a report of a tar ball.
We’ve had 142 reports of tar balls since the spill — all the way down to Miami.
It’s been quite a change.”
The tar that has been found so far in this area came from ships, or from natural seepage from the ocean floor, Wert said.
In the Connecticut laboratory, all of it has been compared to oil known to come
from the spill, through computer-generated graphs of the chemical makeup of
This has kept the laboratory in Connecticut, which still stores samples from the
Exxon Valdes, a busy place, Marine Science Technician Matthew Tyson allowed.
But polluting events — both purposeful and accidental — are not so rare to make
this event stand-alone. “Caseloads fluctuate,” Tyson said.
Still, even on the brightest day, a walk along the shoreline has taken on a grim
aspect since the explosion that pumped several million gallons of crude oil a
day into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I don’t live here to walk on the beach and get tar between my toes,” said Clare. “You kind of get used to just looking for shells on the beach.”
Clare hopes that outrage over the BP disaster, and the Coast Guard’s swift response, will lead more beach walkers to notice and report tar on their shores.
“If everyone did this, we could find out where it’s coming from.”
To report tar or oil on the beach, call Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center at 561-712-6400 and then press 2; or, the State Warning Point at 561-320-0519; or dial #DEP on a cell phone.
Local oil response by the numbers
Since the April Deepwater Horizon explosion, and as of July 23:
people in Palm Beach County have contacted the Palm Beach County Emergency
Operations Center to volunteer to participate in any local response efforts.
• The Palm
Beach County Emergency Operations Center has received 38 calls reporting tar
State Emergency Operations Center has received …
695 reports of tar balls
213 reports of tar patties
97 reports of tar mats
161 reports of oil sheen
• Total by
South Florida county …
County — 43
County — 52