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Getting paid for beachcombing

By Staff | Mar 13, 2011

They get up early every day and head down to the beaches in Gulf Shores, Alabama. They walk for miles, heads down, seeking their elusive ‘treasure.’ They search all day. Every day.

But, it is not a pretty seashell that these folks are after. Nope, it is something much darker – and nastier.

They are looking for globs of oil.

Remember last summer and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? On April 20, 2010 (just slightly less than a year ago) the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killed 11 men and sank.

It also started gushing crude oil into the gulf waters. Something like 4.9 million barrels of the stuff went into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped on July 15. The spill was finally contained on September 19, when a ‘relief well’ was completed and the federal government officially declared the disaster ‘contained.’

You must remember it – it was in all the papers. And on every television newscast, every day for months. Remember those pictures of oil slicks in the gulf and gobs of oil washing up on the beaches and covering sand, marshes and birds?

After having dominated the news all of last summer, one doesn’t see much about it now. In fact, some Americans probably figure the cleanup is done.

But, it isn’t.

Along the beaches near Gulf Shores, Alabama, hundreds of people go to work every day to clean the beautiful white sand that stretches for miles. Most of them are in the employ of BP Petroleum. But, not all.

When the clean up crews are along the miles of Bon Secour National Shoreland, agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are alongside the beach cleanup crews.

One of them, a young woman named Michele, says their mission is to make sure the workers don’t do more harm than good. Besides the beaches, there are miles of sand dunes, beach grass and wildlife swamp areas that she wants to protect.

Michele is originally from Ohio, once lived in North Dakota, and now calls Arkansas home. But, she is on a 6-month deployment to the gulf, to oversee the cleanup work.

It appears the cleanup has two types of activities. One involves crews walking in pairs, scooping up small tar balls off the shore. The other involves heavy equipment, with large payloaders hauling yards of sand into huge sifting machines.

The major cleanup is done, Michele says. But, every day more little globs wash up on shore.

The truth is, I had not seen any in the area of beach the crew was working at. But, the oil was indeed there. Michele showed me small oil balls the size of quarters or silver dollars within two feet of where we stood. But they were brown, not black, and encrusted with sand, making them hard to spot. However, once she pointed them out, it was easy to see they actually were everywhere along the shore.

The work crews deftly scooped up the oil globs with nets and tossed them into bags and buckets to be hauled away.

Owners of restaurants and condos wanted to make that point very clear – the beaches are clean, with beautiful white sand, and what little oil is there is cleaned up constantly.

After suffering through a devastating summer last year, the businesses along the gulf are eager to have the summer tourists and winter visitors come back.

On a recent visit to the coast, several local folks (when they learned I was a newspaper editor from Minnesota) said to tell people here that it is OK to come and visit. It is a beautiful place, and they guarantee a good time.

Michele and the BP crew she oversees don’t have an answer when they are asked how long they will continue the cleanup. The easy answer, she says, is “as long as it takes, as long as the oil keeps coming ashore.”

But, it gets more complicated than that, she quickly adds. There comes a time when the cleanup can be doing more damage to the shoreland than the oil is. She says nature is capable of breaking down the oil and washing clean its own beaches.

She makes a final good point. As we looked out into the gulf, with several drilling platforms visible far off in the distance, she wonders if a lesson had been learned and additional precautions are now in place to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.

A very good question.