Image: Oil cleanup at Orange Beach, Alabama
Dave Martin  /  AP
Oil cleanup workers use absorbent booms to collect oil and tar balls in Orange Beach, Ala., on Wednesday.
By
updated 7/7/2010 5:15:13 PM ET 2010-07-07T21:15:13

There's a dirty secret buried under Gulf of Mexico beaches after cleanup workers scrape away the oil washing ashore.

Walk to a seemingly pristine patch of sand, plop down in a chair and start digging with your bare feet, like everyone does at the beach. Chances are you'll walk away with gooey tar between your toes.

So far, cleanup workers hired by BP have skimmed only the surface, using shovels or sifting machines to remove oil. The company is planning a deeper cleaning program that could include washing or incinerating sand once the leak is stopped off the coast of Louisiana.

Some experts question whether it's better to just leave it alone and let nature run its course, in part because oil that weathers on beaches isn't considered as much of a health hazard as fresh crude. Some environmentalists and local officials fret about harm to the ecosystem and tourism.

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"We have to have sand that is just as clean as it was before the spill," said Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, a popular tourist stretch reaching to the Florida state line.

Meanwhile out in the Gulf, choppy seas held up oil skimming operations all along the Gulf coast, although boats off Louisiana's shoreline hoped to be back at work before the day ended. Rough waves have halted offshore skimming in Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana for more than a week.

Orange Beach was stained Wednesday by a new wave of tar balls and brown, oil-stained foam after days of relatively oil-free surf, but few tourists were around to see the mess.

'Polishing the beaches' plan
BP has high hopes to clean it all eventually. Mark DeVries, BP's deputy incident commander in Mobile, envisions a time when no one can tell what hit the beaches during the summer of oil.

"That's our commitment — to return the beaches to the state they were before," Devries said. "We're referring to it as polishing the beaches."

Chuck Kelly knows what a job that will be. He works at Gulf State Park and has been watching as tides bury even the worst oil deposits — slicks hundreds of yards long and inches deep — before cleaning crews can reach them.

"Some oil comes in with a wave, and another wave covers it with sand," he said. "It's just like a rock or a shell. There's all sorts of things buried in this sand. Now, there's oil."

George Crozier, a marine scientist and director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said there's only one real reason to dig up the buried oil: tourism.

"Buried is buried. It will get carved up by a hurricane at some point, but I see no particular advantage to digging it up," he said. "It's a human environmental hazard only because people don't want to go to the beach if it's got tar balls on it."

Judy Haner, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy, favors deep-cleaning because the sand is home to small creatures like sand fleas, which form the base of the coastal food chain.

"They're the ones exposed to (oil) every tidal cycle, and they're living in the sand," she said. "It's the bioaccumulation up the chain that is problematic."

Some creatures could be removed from dirty sand by sifting the material before washing, but others would undoubtedly be killed.

Adding new sand could be problematic
The Orange Beach mayor fears a long-term nightmare scenario: buried oil being swept off the beach by a hurricane and strewn all over his coastal town.

He favors a method familiar along the Gulf Coast: nourishment. After a hurricane scours a beach flat, workers use huge dredges to pump new sand from the floor of the Gulf onto the beach.

That could work if the Gulf floor isn't contaminated, too. No one knows yet how bad it is. Only certain areas of the seabed have beach-quality sand and costs could escalate drastically for sand from farther away, said Phillip West, the city's coastal resources manager. After Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004, it cost $9 million just to renourish Orange Beach.

DeVries, the BP executive, said there is time to develop a plan because the leak isn't expected to be stopped before August. Oil could be hitting the coast through mid-fall. Possible options include washing sand chemically or even heating it in an incinerator to burn off the oil, he said.

The eventual solution could look like what's going on at Grand Isle, La., where officials want to use sand-washers like those already used extensively in Canada to cull tar from vast deposits.

Sand will be collected by sifting machines dubbed "Sandbonis," a reference to the Zamboni machines used to resurface ice rinks. The sand will be dumped into a container, sifted again, and washed with 110-degree water, then mild detergent. It will be tested before eventually being replaced on the beach.

"This is impressive," Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp Jr. said at a demonstration. "To be able to take the sand off the beach, clean it and put it back is much better than hauling it away."

Project engineer Mike Lunsford said the washing operation can clean 50 tons of sand an hour. The weight of sand can vary widely, depending on its moisture and how tightly it is packed.

Fifty tons sounds like a lot. But even if the sand is dry and loose, it would take an hour to clean an area less than the size of a basketball court 6 inches deep. Officials say hundreds of thousands of cubic yards need to be cleaned.

No matter the solution, local officials and would-be beachgoers are frustrated and hope their favorite spots can be saved.

"This is heartbreaking," said Julie Davidson, 42, who drove down to Grand Isle from Kenner to see the effects of the spill. "We usually come down here at least for a long weekend, but there's no reason to now. You can't get in the water, you're afraid of the beach. Why come?"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cleanup chief visits oil-capping vessel

  1. Closed captioning of: Cleanup chief visits oil-capping vessel

    >>> with positive news. on day 80 of the oil spill in the gulf of mexico , bp officials tell nbc news they hope to stop the leak by the end of the month. kerry sanders is in new orleans with more on the effort to stop the spill. kerry, good morning.

    >> reporter: well, good morning, lester. bp says if everything lines up they'll be able to kill this leak by the end of the month. we took an exclusive trip with them out to the site where the oil is leaking and they warned high seas and weather could cause delays. we joined the incident commander , retired admiral thad allen , and bp 's bob dudley on their first visit since the disaster began to the "discoverer enterprise." in this still floating industrial city , this vessel is the one floating over the gusher one mile down. fm if there's been any limited success in this disaster, it's right down there. this is the pipe onboard the "discoverer enterprise" that makes its way down to that containment cap, and they're capturing about 15,000 barrels of oil every day. burning off gas as well as oil, the q-4000. soft hoses run from that ship down to the leak. an estimated 8,000 barrels of oil is captured here every day. and soon the helix producer should capture upwards of 25,000 barrels.

    >> that is the third vessel that will come online under the current containment scheme that will bring us to 53,000 barrels of day capacity.

    >> reporter: that leaves an estimated 7,000 barrels a day still leaking in the gulf. how do you regain the confidence of americans who have seen this?

    >> it's going to be tough. i'll be honest with you. it's going to be tough.

    >> reporter: the relief wells are now ahead of schedule and bp has started to position that so-called mud into place that they will inject into the well to cement it off. so here on day 80, there are signs that things are getting into place to possibly close off this portion of an ongoing disaster. lester?

    >> we're all crossing our fingers. kerry sanders , thanks.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
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    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion

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