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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. 4.6 million - that's our number of the year today. It is the number of pounds of oily material collected this year from the Gulf Coast shoreline. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports that residents are asking how long they'll be living with the effects of BP's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: On a breezy December morning, a work crew is scouring the surf line on Grand Isle, Louisiana, scooping up tiny tar balls and collecting them in a basket. Foreman LeRoy Irving keeps track of what the 14-person team has collected as they near a lunch break.

LEROY IRVING: If I had to guess, maybe 10 pounds.

ELLIOTT: These patrol and maintenance teams, as they're called, are out four days a week combing Grand Isle and nearby beaches on this stretch of south Louisiana that continues to be a trouble spot for oiling, now approaching four years since the BP oil spill. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Michael Anderson is with the Gulf Coast Incident Management team.

PETTY OFFICER FIRST CLASS MICHAEL ANDERSON: You know, a lot of people don't realize that the Deepwater Horizon response is still going on. It's been a marathon, not a sprint.

ELLIOTT: The active cleanup is now down to 55 miles here in south Louisiana, out of more than 4300 in the immediate aftermath of the spill. Tar balls still wash ashore on beaches in Alabama and Mississippi, but now only get cleaned up when a report is called in to the national response center. Anderson says the active cleanup is now focused on harder-to-find oil. Tropical storms have buried it under layers of sand and sediment, both on beaches and in marshes.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

ELLIOTT: On Fourchon Beach, just west of Grand Isle, a fleet of trucks and front-end loaders work removing heavy oily muck that was recently uncovered here. Anderson says crew found giant tar mats buried deep in breaches after Tropical Storm Karen this year.

ANDERSON: The breach is actually an area which is worn away by the water, so you have an open channel or trench between the ocean and the marshes behind.

ELLIOTT: More than one and a half million pounds of oily material has been recovered in the breaches. BP officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement the company says it's confident that contractors have, quote, located substantially all the material that is feasible to recover in Louisiana. To date, BP has spent more than $14 billion on response and cleanup activities, but environmentalists say the fact that 4.6 million pounds was collected this year alone, more than three years after the disaster, is telling.

DAVID MUTH: You put that much oil into an ecosystem and you're going to be living with the consequences of it for a long, long time.

ELLIOTT: David Muth is with the National Wildlife Federation in New Orleans. We're on Elmer's Island, a state-owned spit of land on the Gulf. Nearby, he spots a host of shore birds - pelicans, cormorants, terns, even the endangered Piping Plover.

MUTH: We're watching birds all along this beach throughout the marshes, throughout the bays, in the open Gulf, that are actively feeding, and the question is now much of that residual oil and oil byproduct are they picking up?

ELLIOTT: Jonathon Henderson at the Gulf Restoration Network documents the ongoing impacts of the BP oil spill. On Elmer's Island he's armed with a specimen jar and blue latex gloves. He's picking through tar balls in the tide line.

JONATHON HENDERSON: But you can look, you can look in this line, you can see they're everywhere. There's literally thousands and thousands and thousands of them. There's one, there's one, there's one, there's one, there's one, there's one.

ELLIOTT: He fills his jar in about three minutes with tar balls ranging from the size of a dime to a silver dollar.

HENDERSON: You crack them open, you can see they're kind of brownish and sandy on the outside, but when open they're black in the middle and you can smell it kind of right away once you crack it open; the fumes start coming out of them.

ELLIOTT: Henderson also does regular flyovers of the Gulf's oil production platforms looking for evidence of leaks that might not make the headlines that BP did.

HENDERSON: Any one of these at any time could turn into something bigger, so clearly, one of the dangers of deep water drilling like this is once you have a blowout, you know, the damage is really going to be done and it's going to stick with you for a long time.

ELLIOTT: That's been a hard lesson for Dean Blanchard.

DEAN BLANCHARD: Oh, basically, they turned us into a ghost town.

ELLIOTT: Blanchard is a shrimp processor on Grand Isle, Louisiana.

BLANCHARD: The thing to do down here was to come down here and fish and to lay on the beach. They killed the fish and they put oil on the beach.

ELLIOTT: There's no reason for people to come now, he says, unless they work on an oil cleanup crew. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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