Sunday, August 22, 2010

Oil Cleanup at Gulf Islands National Seashore

When in Florida a few days ago, I was privileged to visit with various personnel on the cleanup work crews, park rangers and the temporary resource adviser for the Gulf Islands National Seashore park in Florida. All had stories to tell, so I thought I would share some of them with my readers.

The first thing I noticed when I got to the beach was the lack of people. There was not one person on the beach. The park has one public beach with a lifeguard. The one thing to see beyond wildlife and the park was one work crew cleaning the beach of tar. My first thought - oh no! This IS a  disaster. No one can swim. On this day, the water was super calm and safe, so I knew it was not the water conditions keeping people away.
This lifeguard showed up shortly after we arrived. It was going to be a long day for him. He said he hoped someone would come swimming later in the day. As the day unfolded however, I doubt anyone ever showed up, because rain pelted the area late in the day. It is the perception of the public he said. They think the beach is covered in oil. Not!

I went to look closely at the beach and wade in it. I saw very small globs of tar, loosely compacted balls of brownish material about the size of a nickel or quarter. I picked a piece up in my hand and noted that is did not even leave tar on my hand. I stepped on it and it did not stick to my shoes.  So I asked myself, why would anyone not be going to the beach when the beach is so very beautiful and the presence of tar is non-threatening? I have had to clean tar off my skin before many times in South Padre. What is all this concern about anyway?
I can certainly attest to the fact that the Sandpipers were there enjoying the beach. So were the gulls! The shoreline was clean and the water left no marks on a person's skin. Conditions were near perfect.

So I went to talk to the work crew. Each crew is super cautious. I talked to the foreman who was very willing to do some PR work. He said that they were pulling tar about 18 inches under the surface. A storm had come through after tar had been first deposited on the beach. Now the tar is about 18 inches under the surface. This sand is very fine and drifts rapidly. Therefore, the storm moved a lot of it over the tar. It will take years to clean up the mess, says the crew supervisor.

In the heat of the day, workers are given very large rest periods. For each 10 minutes of manual work, the worker must rest 50 minutes. They are signaled to do so by a black flag. Yes, you heard me right. 1/6 time working, 5/6 time resting in extreme heat. So it looks like the crew is doing practically nothing. When I was there, the black flag was not blowing, meaning that the crew was to work normal breaks. I have to admit, I do not know what normal is for them.
Each team consists of a digger and an extractor. It has a bucket in which the tar is deposited. On this occasion, the day was still early and not much tar had been collected. The team was working in an area containing small amounts of tar.

There were some fairly large pieces of tar in the bucket. The supervisor told me sometimes the globs are 1 1/2 inches thick and fill the buckets quickly. Not on this day however.

The supervisor also wanted to show me the dirt moving equipment that they must use in some areas.

There is constant monitoring of the seashore and waters offshore to determine if any new oil is threatening the shoreline. Currents are ever changing and on this day were fairly strong due to an offshore tropical depression out in the gulf.

In the presence of the supervisor, I picked up another ball of tar, asking about its content and its size relative to what has been recently observed. He told me I had just picked up a ball of toxic material. Workers are very sensitive to the possibility of its toxicity. I've worked in the oil industry for 35 years and was in no way afraid to pick one of these up with my bare hands. I told him just that. Toxicity is a legal issue, not reality, but I refrained from engaging with him further on that subject.
Small fish are doing well and the gulls are feasting on them. Everything is in its rightful place. Wildlife is not suffering at all on the shore. Notice the gull's threatening eyes. I laughed when I saw this incident.  
In the background, the resource adviser is taking notes for conditions at each location in the park, looking for changes that might indicate a threat to the park's resources. Flags indicate areas that work crews can or cannot use. These mark a vehicle path for cleanup crews only. It is important to protect all the vegetation resources as well as the creatures. Oil is not the only threat to the park's resources.  At this time of the year, the Sea Oats and grasses keep the dunes in place in the windy storms that frequent the area. Conservation includes snakes, coons, trees grass and wild flowers. Life in this park is very diverse. This particular park is blessed with an amazing variety of wildlife and vegetation. I was amazed how many oaks there are on the southern side of the island- primarily due to the forestation efforts of the Spaniards.  Fort Pickens is located here in the national seashore. This is a great place to visit. Oil on the beaches? Now you know the rest of the story...      

The beach the following day ... no tar balls being washed up on that day either although the surf was high, currents strong and tide was up. Isn't it inviting? So where are the people?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ridley Sea Turtle and the Louisiana oil spill

The story of the Ridley never ends. I recently traveled to the beautiful beaches of Pensacola Beach, Florida to witness the newest threat to this species first hand. While the oil well disaster off the Louisiana coast is not the first threat to this sea creature, it is certainly of highest concern in this day of conservation. Man is its worse enemy.

Man drove it to near extinction by excavating its eggs from the northern and central Gulf shore sands for food without regard to the future of this turtle. Man has again done something quite stupid, risking the animal's very being. Fortunately, we have learned quite a bit over the years on how to manage the survival of this turtle. It nests in the summer in sands sufficiently away from the beach so that the eggs will not be prematurely exposed by tides or storms. The sands are soft enough on the barrier islands to easily dig. The temperature for hatching is optimum a few inches under the surface. Dogs are trained to find the eggs. One cannot tell if there is a nest simply by observation of the surface. Either one digs for them or smells them through the nostril of an animal. A hatch-ling will return to near the place they hatch and at which are first exposed to the water. The first swim determines its return location. When we first removed the turtle from along the upper Gulf coast,  Biologists did not have the means to repopulate our shores. An effort for the recovery of the turtle on our shores began to be successful when we began to treat every egg as a precious commodity. By transferring some turtles from Mexico, we began to repopulate the shores.   This was done through moving eggs to hatcheries in the USA and letting the babies run from the sands into the water where we wanted them to return. Those working on these projects would catch the turtles in nets and return them to grow in a low risk environment until they were less prone to be eaten by their enemies. Then the turtles would be released to the place where they were to return to nest. This strategy worked. Today, we are using the same method to conserve what turtles we have remaining on our beaches.

I was fortunate to find the lead resource manager of the wildlife protection initiative in the national seashore at Pensacola Beach. Miss Carol Gale a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, although stationed in North Dakota, is working there now. Her mission as a Resource Advisor for the Gulf Islands National Seashore is to make sure the turtles and other threatened resources of the park are not harmed by this oil spill or its recovery effort.

This turtle nest is roped off to fend off any intrusion by people into this small nest zone. There are several in the seashore park.  This one happened to be very accessible by the public, just off the access road. You can see how far away the nest is from the beach. This view is away from the beach. This nest must be 50 yards or more away from the water.
This view shows the distance from the beach. The sands are elevated here.

To help prevent the cleanup crews from doing harm to the environment and to only work in designated areas, the entire park is flagged with signs.

The oil is 18 inches under the surface of the sand. As you may recall, Pensacola did have significant oil on its shores a few months ago in the form of tar. Hopefully this turtle nest is above it and not in it. Actually, I believe the tar is closer to the beach and there was no tar deposited this far away from the beach.

NOAA video on release of oiled turtles back into the Gulf