Gulf Coast Communities Investigate Oily Sea Mist With so many unanswered questions about the lingering effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal communities are turning to independent scientists for answers. In Orange Beach, Ala., officials are having the air, water and soil tested to check for toxins from the BP spill.
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Gulf Coast Communities Investigate Oily Sea Mist

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Gulf Coast Communities Investigate Oily Sea Mist

Gulf Coast Communities Investigate Oily Sea Mist

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Now, after the BP oil spill, federal, state and BP-hired scientists are monitoring the Gulf of Mexico for signs of oil contamination. All which is not good enough for some communities that want independent verification of what the spill has left behind. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In Orange Beach, Alabama, its Ted Scarritts business to know the condition of the beach.

Mr. TED SCARRITT (Perdido Beach Services): Todays a good day.

(Soundbite of waves)

ELLIOTT: Waves are lapping the shore and Scarritts workers have set out rows of wooden lounge chairs with royal blue cushions and umbrellas. Scarritt owns Perdido Beach Services, a company that rents beach equipment.

Hes thrilled that the wind is blowing out of the north on this Labor Day weekend, when local businesses are hoping to get an end-of-summer boost after a miserable season.

Scarritt noticed recently that when the wind was coming in strong from the south, over a foamy, churned-up Gulf, something new was going on.

Mr. SCARRITT: Whatevers in that foam, in that breaking surf area, is carried onto the beach area by that wind.

ELLIOTT: Just like you might get a film of sea spray on your sunglasses, the beach workers, like Matt Cole, felt a greasier material.

Mr. MATT COLE (Perdido Beach Services): You could actually feel it in your hair and stuff. And then we came back and we noticed when we were pulling some of the umbrellas, they were really slippery, and this was the first time something like this had happened. And you could rub your finger along the shaft of the aluminum pole on the umbrella and it was kind of like an oily, brown substance.

ELLIOTT: Scarritt doesnt believe what BP and federal officials say about most of the oil being gone. He wants better information to protect his workers.�

Mr. SCARRITT: I have a lot of questions, but I dont know how to even ask them.

ELLIOTT: And hes not the only one. Orange Beach city hall has been inundated with calls from residents with complaints - foam that they think is dispersant, a grey-metallic slick in back bays, or seaweed that looks oiled. Theres a heightened sense of environmental awareness and local officials are looking for a way to determine whats really going on.�

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

Mayor TONY KENNON (Orange Beach, Alabama): Very few folks trust the government. And very few folks trust BP. We want to be able to say we have a clean bill of health. And when we say that, we have our own independent data, our own objective information to back up what were selling.

ELLIOTT: Jody Blount steers a boat into Weeks Bay. He and geologist Mark White are out to collect soil and water samples at one of the 15 sites they're monitoring.

Unidentified Man #1: Anywhere on that point fine with you? Or you want to try to find...

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think anywhere in this area is, I mean, you know, we selected that site from the map, so...

Unidentified Man #1: Right.

ELLIOTT: They stop at a stand of needle rush grass, and Blount wades into the shallow water with a sample jar.

These samples 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. He runs a white napkin along the stem of the plant, and it comes back with a greasy, brown tinge.

Mr. MARK WHITE (Geologist): See, you can kind of see the oily appearance of it, but no odor. Problematic for sure.

ELLIOTT: 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 theyre looking for.

Mr. WHITE: We are trying to figure it out, but were living in it while were trying to figure it out and it's not - theres no silver bullet that says this is unsafe.

ELLIOTT: Orange Beach is using grant money from BP for the testing and putting the data on the towns website. Mayor Kennon says negative results could affect tourism in the short-term, but, he says, finding the truth is more important.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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