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BP Shrinks Gulf Cleanup Crews, Tries New Tools

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BP Shrinks Gulf Cleanup Crews, Tries New Tools

Environment

BP Shrinks Gulf Cleanup Crews, Tries New Tools

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is away this week. Linda Wertheimer's in our studios.

Linda, welcome once again.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much.

President Obama took his family on a Florida beach vacation this weekend, complete with a swim in the surf with his daughter, Sasha.

Tourism in the Gulf took a hit after the BP oil spill. The president was optimistic, but pledged continued aid for the region.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, the well is capped. Oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf. It has not been flowing for a month. And I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we are not going anywhere until it is.

INSKEEP: But even though oil is no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, it is still washing ashore in some parts of the Gulf Coast and posing a cleanup challenge, to say the least.

Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

(Soundbite of waves crashing ashore)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Waves crash below the Gulf State Park Pier on the Alabama coast, and they're not their usual emerald-green hue.

Mr. WILLIAM KEY (Ranger and Pier supervisor, Gulf State Park): It is brown-y. It's a lot of silt, mud and oil. You know, there's no two ways about it.

ELLIOTT: William Key is the ranger and pier supervisor at Gulf State Park. He says the storm that came though the Gulf of Mexico last week churned up the water and what was lurking below the surface.

Mr. KEY: And we've wondered what would happen if we have a Gulf full of oil and a hurricane strikes this part of the country. Well, we saw what happens just a couple of days ago, and that wasn't even a hurricane - very minor around here. We got high winds, high surf, and it stirred up the oil that was on the bottom.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

ELLIOTT: On the beach, Anthony Williams uses a tiny minnow net and bucket to scoop up tar balls, sift the sand out and collect the oil.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

Mr. ANTHONY WILLIAMS: Even the tiniest of the tiny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: We get them all.

ELLIOTT: It's a seemingly futile effort, given the sheer number of tar balls dotting the beach. Williams and his foreman are using the nets, while two others rake up larger patches nearby. But Williams is undaunted.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We've lost a lot of people, but I come out here and give 100 percent, so you got to get what you can get.

ELLIOTT: BP has been downsizing its crews in the Gulf ever since it capped the well in mid-July. On July 12th, more than 46,000 people were working the cleanup. By August 12th, it was down to just over 14,000. The company is hoping a new piece of equipment can do a more efficient job.

(Soundbite of beeping)

ELLIOTT: In Perdido Key, Florida, the Sand Shark is deployed on the beach. The tractor-like machine scoops up an eight-foot swath of sand and sifts it clean.

(Soundbite of machine shaking)

ELLIOTT: Project leader Kevin Seilhan says the device goes deeper than existing technology can, up to a foot and half into the sand, and can pick up extremely small tar balls.

Mr. KEVIN SEILHAN (Project Leader, Perdido Key Cleanup): We want to be able to lift them up, keep them in the same state, go up a conveyor. It drops it over a separator that separates the material across the sifting device, and then it'll sift it from three-eight's inch down to two millimeters.

ELLIOTT: In a five minute run, Seilhan says the Sand Shark has cleaned more sand than 100 people could in three hours. BP has ordered four more to use in the cleanup.

When it comes to the beaches, it's a question of how clean is clean, says Orange Beach, Alabama environmental manager Philip West. He drives his jeep between the tide-line and the dunes, pointing out the stark contrast in the color of the sand where oil has washed up over the summer.

Mr. PHILIP WEST (Environmental Manager, Orange Beach, Alabama): The beach ought to be just pure white, just brilliant white. When I look to the beaches that have been impacted, there's just a very faint, orang-ish, pink hue to it.

ELLIOTT: West welcomes technology like the Sand Shark, but says it won't take care of the stained beach.

Mr. WEST: It does a pretty good job of pulling, in a more efficient manner, more of the small tar balls. But is it going to handle this? No. And can it get down there on the shore face? No, it can't.

ELLIOTT: West is urging BP to come up with a way to wash the tainted sand. Nature will eventually bleach it out. But West says this resort community needs its signature white sand beaches back in a matter of months, not years.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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