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Beach cleaners only skimming oil off surface sand

 

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A problem lurks under the sand on the Gulf Coast, but some argue the best thing to do is — nothing.

Walk to a seemingly pristine patch of sand, plop down in a chair and start digging with your bare feet and chances are you'll walk away with gooey tar between your toes. So far, workers hired by BP to clean oil off beaches have skimmed only the surface, using shovels or sifting machines.

The oil underneath is sometimes buried by the tides before workers can get to it. Now the company is planning a deeper cleaning program that could include washing or incinerating sand once the blown-out oil undersea well is plugged and the gusher stopped off the coast of Louisiana.

Meanwhile, BP Managing Director Bob Dudley said the spewing oil from the underwater well could possibly be stopped before the end of the month, but then said it's unlikely.

"In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told The Wall Street Journal.

But he added that the "perfect case" is threatened by the hurricane season.

As for cleaning the beaches, some experts question whether it's better to just let nature run its course, in part because oil that weathers on beaches isn't considered as much of a health hazard as fresh crude. Some environmentalists and local officials fret about harm to the ecosystem and tourism.

"We have to have sand that is just as clean as it was before the spill," said Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, a popular tourist stretch reaching to the Florida state line.

George Crozier, a marine scientist and director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said tourism's the only real reason to dig up the buried oil.

"Buried is buried. It will get carved up by a hurricane at some point, but I see no particular advantage to digging it up," he said. "It's a human environmental hazard only because people don't want to go to the beach if it's got tar balls on it."

Meanwhile out in the Gulf of Mexico, choppy seas held up oil skimming operations all along the Gulf coast, one more day of interruption in more than a week of weather kicked off by the faraway Hurricane Alex.

The weather could be moving on soon. A tropical system developing off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is not expected to cause problems for the Gulf, and there is better weather forecast for the weekend.

That could help crews at sea attempting to hook up a third containment vessel to collect oil from the gushing well head at the seafloor. Between 86 million and 168 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. Oil has washed up on the shores of all five Gulf states, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and the latest — Texas.

BP has high hopes to clean it all eventually. Mark DeVries, BP's deputy incident commander in Mobile, envisions a time when no one can tell what hit the beaches during the summer of oil.

"That's our commitment — to return the beaches to the state they were before," Devries said. "We're referring to it as polishing the beaches."

Chuck Kelly knows what a job that will be. He works at Gulf State Park and has been watching as tides bury even the worst oil deposits — slicks hundreds of yards long and inches deep — before cleaning crews can reach them.

"Some oil comes in with a wave, and another wave covers it with sand," he said. "It's just like a rock or a shell. There's all sorts of things buried in this sand. Now, there's oil."

 
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