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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Although it's been more than six months since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, that doesn't mean the oil is gone. Crews are still working to clean hundreds of miles of oiled shoreline, from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this update.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The waves that typically wash up shells on the beach at Gulf State Park on the Alabama coast are also churning up tar balls these days.

TERESA CARLISLE: It doesn't go away.

ELLIOTT: Teresa Carlisle manages the state fishing pier. She says most mornings, there's a fresh batch of weathered oil - hardened clumps, ranging in size from tiny pebbles to softballs.

CARLISLE: The wind moves the sand and uncovers stuff that was covered the day before. You know, new stuff washes in, you know, in the surf. And it's just evidence every day.

ELLIOTT: She hasn't seen big plumes of oil coming in since the summer. Now, the impact is more subtle - like the faint orangey-brown line where the tide came in during the night.

CARLISLE: Yeah. You can stand up here on the pier and look and see the difference in the sand. You can see the stain up here. You know, like a light coffee or a tea stain, just depending on how bad it is.

ELLIOTT: This is what the government calls moderate to light oiling - a problem for nearly 500 miles of the Gulf Coast. Another 93 miles, mostly in Louisiana, are experiencing heavy oiling.

Charlie Henry is the government's scientific support coordinator for the oil spill response. He says it's not oil washing in from the Gulf, but pollution that may have been hidden until now.

CHARLIE HENRY: We're dealing more so with oil that's stranded in the marshes and accessing that oil and working very gingerly in those marshes. And a lot of that oil's not mobile at all anymore. Sometimes we just find that when we have lower tide situations, especially with northern wind, that you can see oil that may not have been visible before and people may think that's new oil. But it's really been documented and we've been aggressively working those issues also.

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ELLIOTT: On the Alabama coast, BP launched what it calls Operation Deep Clean last week. It involves mostly heavy equipment that digs down into the oily sand and sifts out the tar balls. BP Spokesman Ray Melick says the challenge is getting to all the oil.

RAY MELICK: Well, the oil would connect with the sand and the saltwater, and it would get into clumps that we would call tar mats or tar balls. And then as it was brought ashore, storms or whatever might blow it up into the swale back here and then the natural shifting of the sands, it would get buried. In some places it's as deep as 30 inches. Most of it's probably about six to 12 inches deep.

ELLIOTT: Melick says BP plans to have the beaches clean by the end of the year. But Orange Beach, Alabama mayor Tony Kennon says the cleanup is going too slow and isn't going far enough. He says BP should have been doing this deep cleaning long before now, and needs to be tackling more than just the tar balls on the beach.

TONY KENNON: Concurrently, they should be cleaning the surf, cleaning the beach, and cleaning the stained sand and moving right down the beach. And when they're through, they're through.

ELLIOTT: Kennon says as long as tar mats remain in the surf, they're going to wash ashore, day in and day out.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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