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A Gulf Spill Puzzle: How Best To Clean Beaches

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A Gulf Spill Puzzle: How Best To Clean Beaches

Environment

A Gulf Spill Puzzle: How Best To Clean Beaches

A Gulf Spill Puzzle: How Best To Clean Beaches

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The oil and tar washing up on Gulf Coast beaches presents a puzzle for environmental officials. Sometimes a cleanup effort can do more harm than letting the pollution be and waiting for natural processes to break it down. Melissa Block talks to Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Yesterday on the program, we heard about the problems with cleaning up Gulf Coast marshes. Fragile grasslands already threatened by oil can be further damaged by the boots and boats of cleanup crews.

Cleaning crude off of beaches has a number of problems, too. And to talk about the pros and cons, we're joined by Lisa Speer. She's director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LISA SPEER (Director, International Oceans Program; Natural Resources Defense Council): Thank you.

BLOCK: And when you think about the beaches being affected here all along the Gulf Coast, what do you think? Should crews try to totally cleanup the oil on the beaches?

Ms. SPEER: Well, that's a great question. And unfortunately, there's no one answer to that question. It will depend a lot on whether the beach is a cobble beach or a gravel beach, whether it's sandy, whether it's close to people and whether it harbors especially vulnerable populations such as nesting seabirds or turtles.

But in general, there are a few characteristics of beaches that make them actually much easier to cleanup than the marshes you were discussing yesterday.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. What would those be?

Ms. SPEER: Well, for example, you have a hard, flat stable surface for the most part. You have generally much better accessibility for cleanup crews. And you don't have all those interstices where the oil can become entrained between plants in the sediments and throughout the maze of life that lives in marshes.

BLOCK: But you do hear this, that the heavy equipment that they might be using - I've heard about front-end loaders, power washes to clean the rocks on the beaches - that those could make things worse by pushing the oil farther down into sediment.

Ms. SPEER: That's exactly right. So there are a couple of things you can do actually ahead of time. One thing is to clean the beaches of debris. The debris can soak up oil and make the cleanup much more complicated and expensive. Another thing you can do is try to identify sensitive habitats and areas where nesting seabirds or turtles are likely to be. Once the oil comes ashore, the preference is generally to have manual cleanup.

You know, the critical thing is to try to not push the oil down deeper into the sediments, as you mentioned. Once it gets down there, it doesn't degrade very well, and it is vulnerable to being released in subsequent storms by wave action that churns up the sand.

BLOCK: Any lessons that were learned by the cleanup after the Exxon Valdez disaster? I know it's very different shoreline, but still.

Ms. SPEER: There were a lot of very painful lessons learned during that cleanup. One of which was the use of hot water high pressure wash, really did a huge amount of damage to the rocky and the tidal shoreline that's up there. So now, protocol generally calls not to use hot water high pressure washes on beaches of any type, really, because of the damage that those activities can have.

BLOCK: And the oil there still seeping out of the sediments, I think.

Ms. SPEER: It is still seeping out of the sediments. One difference - important difference is the Gulf is a lot warmer than Alaska so you will have much more evaporation going on and bacterial degradation. On the other hand, once the oil gets deep into sediments, there is very little that can be done. The oil will persist there and has persisted in a variety of environments that have been studied over the years for many decades.

BLOCK: For people who may want to help out in the beach cleanup, to volunteer to come down to the Gulf, what do you think about that? Does that do more harm than good? Would there be things they can do that would be useful and not harmful?

Ms. SPEER: Well, you know, it's - as we all watched these heartbreaking images of oil washing up onto beaches and coating wildlife and birds, I think all of us feel this desire to come down and try to help what we can. But untrained help can actually do more damage than trained help. So if you do decide to go down there, make sure you get trained appropriately.

There are many training opportunities that are available to train people to do more good than harm to this very sensitive part of the world.

BLOCK: Lisa Speer is director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Lisa, thanks very much.

Ms. SPEER: Thank you, Melissa.

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