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BP’s beach clean-up ‘contaminated clean sand’

deepwater oil beach.jpgBP’s efforts to clean beaches soiled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in some cases spread the oil to previously clean sand. Its method of finding pockets of buried oil and excavating and sieving sand were unproven and of questionable effectiveness, researchers who observed the efforts say in a new paper.

BP’s ‘Operation Deep Clean’ targeted Alabama beaches contaminated by some of the millions of gallons of oil spilled following the accident that destroyed the Deepwater drilling rig last year. Civil engineers Joel Hayworth and T. Prabhakar Clement were on hand to see the operation, funded in part by BP’s Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative money.

The main problem seems to be that deep cleaning broke up large chunks of oily sand and mixed them with clean sand, spreading small fragments of oil across the beaches. BP’s tactic of digging and sieving “unquestionably homogenized and distributed a considerable fraction of the remnant oil over a larger beach volume”, Hayworth and Clement write in Environmental Science and Technology.

The paper adds, “the efficiency and effectiveness of the deep clean strategy is questionable. … The methodologies employed by BP were new, unproven, and based upon optimistic expectations.”

Speaking to Nature, Clement said that the deep clean did remove some oil from the beaches. It may even turn out to be beneficial, he says, with the more widely distributed oil being likely to degrade faster and the risk of people or animals encountering large fragments of oil reduced.

But, Clement says, it might have been preferable to do a smaller feasibility study, followed by a more targeted approach, deep cleaning fewer areas: “Where you are not 100% sure it’s going to be effective, probably leaving it alone is not a bad strategy.”

Nature has asked BP for comment on this issue. Operation Deep Clean officially ended last month (WKRG).

UPDATE – A spokesman for BP provided the following statement in response to the study:

We view Operation Deep Clean (ODC) as having been extremely effective in returning the amenity beaches to a state that can be enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. The deep cleaning activities were developed and implemented as part of the SCAT process – a multi-agency, multi-faceted, scientific endeavor. The methods used and results sought were determined collaboratively with federal and state agencies. The deep cleaning process was implemented after great consideration and deliberation by appropriate entities.

By and large, state and local officials, along with members of Gulf Coast communities, have expressed great satisfaction with the results obtained through ODC.

In other news, Byron Grote, BP’s Chief Financial Officer, yesterday said he hoped the company would be back drilling in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

“We’ve got a number of things we want to make certain we have right before we recommence drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. … We expect to be back and actively drilling during the second half of the year,” he told a conference call with investors (23 minutes in).

Image: oil on a Pensacola beach last year. Photo by US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley.


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