Gulf Coast Communities Investigate Oily Sea Mist

Sea oats line the dunes in Orange Beach, Ala. i i

Tests have confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons on the sea oats that line the dunes in Orange Beach, Ala. -- apparently from a strong south wind that blew in over a foamy, churned-up Gulf of Mexico. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Sea oats line the dunes in Orange Beach, Ala.

Tests have confirmed the presence of hydrocarbons on the sea oats that line the dunes in Orange Beach, Ala. -- apparently from a strong south wind that blew in over a foamy, churned-up Gulf of Mexico.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

In Orange Beach, Ala., it's Ted Scarritt's business to know the condition of the beach.

"Today's a good day," he says.

Scarritt owns Perdido Beach Services, a company that rents beach chairs and umbrellas. He's thrilled that the wind is blowing out of the north on this Labor Day weekend, when local businesses hope to get an end-of-summer boost after a miserable season.

Scarritt and his workers noticed recently that when the wind came in strong from the south, over a foamy, churned-up Gulf, it was carrying something new onto the beach.

Geologist Mark White gives Jody Blount a bottle to collect a water sample. i i

Geologist Mark White (right) of Cameron Consulting gives Jody Blount a bottle to collect a water sample. Weeks Bay is one of 15 sites selected for long-term monitoring for effects of the BP oil spill. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Geologist Mark White gives Jody Blount a bottle to collect a water sample.

Geologist Mark White (right) of Cameron Consulting gives Jody Blount a bottle to collect a water sample. Weeks Bay is one of 15 sites selected for long-term monitoring for effects of the BP oil spill.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Just as seaspray might leave a film on a person's sunglasses, a greasier material was detected by beach workers.

"You could actually feel it in your hair and stuff," says beach worker Matt Cole.

And when the crew started to take down the umbrellas, they were slippery. "You could rub your finger along the shaft of the aluminum pole on the umbrella, and it was kind of an oily brown substance," Cole adds.

Scarritt doesn't believe what BP and federal officials say about most of the oil being gone. He wants better information to protect his workers.

"I have a lot of questions," he says, "but I don't even know how to ask them."

And he's not the only one. Orange Beach city hall has been inundated with calls from residents with complaints — foam that they think is dispersant, a gray-metallic slick in back bays or seaweed that looks oiled. There's a heightened sense of environmental awareness, and local officials are looking for a way to determine what's going on.

Mayor Tony Kennon says that's why the town hired independent scientists to test the air, water and soil.

Jody Blount readies to take a sediment sample on the shores of Weeks Bay on the Alabama Gulf Coast. i i

Jody Blount of Krebs Architecture and Engineering readies to take a sediment sample on the shores of Weeks Bay on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The city of Orange Beach has hired independent scientists to monitor the air, water and soil in the wake of the massive oil spill. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Jody Blount readies to take a sediment sample on the shores of Weeks Bay on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Jody Blount of Krebs Architecture and Engineering readies to take a sediment sample on the shores of Weeks Bay on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The city of Orange Beach has hired independent scientists to monitor the air, water and soil in the wake of the massive oil spill.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

"Very few folks trust the government. And very few folks trust BP," Kennon says. "We want to be able to say we have a clean bill of health."

And the town wants its own objective information to back up "what we're selling," the mayor says.

To gather that data, Jody Blount with Krebs Architecture and Engineering steers a boat into Weeks Bay. He and geologist Mark White of Cameron Consulting are out to collect soil and water samples at one of the 15 sites they are monitoring.

They stop at a stand of needle rush grass, and Blount wades in with a sample jar. The brackish water gurgles and bubbles up as he fills the jar.

The samples on this day contained no oil. But the team has found isolated cases of hydrocarbon levels that exceed safe exposure limits, both in the Gulf and in back bay waters.

Geologist Mark White has also confirmed that oil was apparently airborne, coating the sea oats that line the sand dunes on the beach. He runs a white napkin along the stem of the plant, and it leaves a greasy brown tinge — "Problematic for sure," he says.

White says no trends have surfaced in their two months of testing. And with changing currents, tides and winds, he says, only long-term monitoring will give residents the answers they're looking for.

"We are trying to figure it out, but we're living in it while we're trying to figure it out," White says. "And there's no silver bullet that says this is unsafe."

Orange Beach is using grant money from BP for the testing, and posting the data on the town's website. Mayor Kennon says negative results could affect tourism in the short term, but finding the truth is more important.

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