The Saddest Thing: First-hand Encounter of Oil on Florida and Alabama Beaches

On Monday, June 28, I walked the once pristine beaches of Perdido Key, Florida and was sickened by what I saw. Until recently, these beaches were arguably the whitest sugar-sand beaches in the world. I’ve spent time in this area during nearly every year of my life and never thought I would see this day – pure, white sand covered in thick, black tar balls.

In every direction, tar balls of various sizes lay washed ashore. In front of my family’s place, just a half-mile from the Florida-Alabama state line, black lines of oil and tar ball stains cover the once white beaches.

At Johnson Beach on Gulf Islands National Seashore at the east end of Perdido Key, the tar balls are even larger. Stains on the sand show that oil has washed over an area marked off to protect where sea turtles have laid eggs.

The tar balls are so thick in some places that I could not walk along the beach without stepping in the gooey, toxic mess. Out of place, the balls floated in the water as they washed back and forth in the surf.

Walking along the shore, I became both sad and angry at the thought of whether my sons would ever get to see this beach clean and white again, or if they will always walk in the sand worried about the tar on their feet. Never as a boy had I once worried about stepping into tar on a beach.

I shot a video of my disheartening walk on these beaches, desperate to get the word out about the devastation that I encountered.

It is enraging that states in the western Gulf – Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and especially Louisiana – have sold out to the oil industry. These states have now put the entire Gulf of Mexico and every single one of its beaches, fisheries and people at risk to make a fast buck. We as a nation do not have to sacrifice our natural beauty to feed our addiction to oil. Less than 10 percent of the oil we consume comes from the drilling in the Gulf.

Twenty minutes west are Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama. In May, after flying over the Deepwater rig site, I walked these areas knowing that the oil was a mere 20 miles offshore – only one month later, it is on the beach. Signs along boardwalks advised against swimming in the water, and the beach was covered in tar balls.

On the west side of Gulf Shores, the air smelled of acrid petroleum. It is infuriating that what would normally smell of the humid, salty air of the Gulf now smelled like a chemical industrial park.

Walking along the dunes, I was shocked to see thick oil lines all along the beach. Here, oil was actively washing ashore and I watched as it churned in the surf. What used to be warm Gulf waters, inviting to swim in or walk barefoot through, was now a foul-looking toxic stew that caused me to recoil in disgust.

Hundreds of people are working hard to clean up this devastating mess, and businesses in these areas are still trying to get people to visit the beaches to keep money coming into their now struggling communities. But these are not the beaches I grew up on. It is devastating to know that no amount of optimistic tourist-luring spin is going to clean the oil from these shores.

From my flight over the coast, I saw first hand the amounts of oil in the Gulf that will eventually come ashore. Coast Guard ships just offshore were marking the heavy oil in the tide lines as it drifted closer to the beaches.

As I walked along the oil-covered beach, I grew more enraged at the people who sued to lift the deep-water drilling moratorium, even as oil continues to spew into the Gulf. I am angered by the greed of BP executives who cut corners on safety, unleashing this disaster. But most of all, I worry if we as a people will wake up for this devastating environmental catastrophe and change our ways. Will we learn from this and make changes in our governmental policies to require increased efficiency in our vehicles, support cleaner fuels, electrification of our cars, and put a price on carbon pollution to set in place the market forces that will move us away from fossil fuels? Will people change their personal practices and begin buying cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, or begin driving less all together? Will they demand their elected officials to play fewer political games and get more done? My fear is that we will grow numb to the miles of oily stains and tar balls on our once pristine beaches. I pray for our planet and future generations that we don’t let this happen.

To see the entire set of photos, visit our Flickr page.

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Sickening!! What have we done to our planet, children, future?

Comment by Liz on June 30, 2010 4:02 pm

It is beyond saddness. This is the beginning. The oil will not cease coming to the beach. Even after 20 plus years of the Exxon Valdez spill the oil has not been completely cleaned in Prince Sound. And, that was from a spill from a tanker that had a finite quantity of oil. We’re not dealing with a finite quantity spilled from a tanker. This is an unrelenting gusher that will not be stopped anytime soon. The best possible outcome with what technology is available is the relief well to plug up the pipe far below the seabed. This won’t happen until August at the earliest. That’s assuming that they actually make contact with drill pipe on the first try, which is extremely unlikely. The fear is that the relief well may not work because the pipe is compromised and leaks. This will prevent the mud and heavy materials that they shoot into the relief plug from working. The next option is really horrible: use of a small nuclear bomb.

The water is off limits from now on. There is no swimming or wading in it. It’s done. Over. Tourism will be completely gone from this once pristine beach. Restaurants, clubs, tourist related businesses will be as obliterated. The property values in the beach area and eventually inland will crash. The stench of oil and its accompanying toxins such as noxious gases benzene, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and others will be too overwhelming to bear. The air will be polluted and so foul with toxicity that people will not be able to breath without compromising their health. Therefore, evacuation will happen eventually.

I am sad that your son nor will any of our children revel in the once white sands and warm clear waters of Pensacola Beach. But, the anguish of not enjoying a luxurious past time of beachcombing will give way to the somber anguish of dealing with a global slow extinction event if the oil gusher is not ever stopped. And that is exactly what this is all about.

Comment by Mike on June 30, 2010 5:01 pm

I can’t thank you enough for this sad commentary. Your words are so eloquent. My heart too, is so terribly broken. Two months ago, I moved back to St. Petersburg. I was estatic knowing that I was back home, and eager to re-establish my life again. To be in paradise!

I say that with tears in my eyes, knowing my paradise may not be here for much longer. I can’t find the words to explain the feeling I carry within, knowing what I know.

My favorite beaches are, Pass-A-Grill/St. Pete and Pensacola/Gulf Breeze. As long as I can get gas, I will be at my favorite beach to imprint on my brain the splendor and beauty we still have. And to pray. Pray for our beautiful Gulf… and the whole world. I will also be praying for the good souls in this world finally holler, “Enough is enough!”.

I am begining to better understand what the year 2012 may be all about. I have a growing feeling that we will actually get to heal ourselves and our planet.

Thank you again!
Peace and Serenity,

Melonie Posey

Comment by Melonie Posey on July 1, 2010 12:15 am

My family and I have enjoyed Johnson Beach for several years now and we are all saddened at this terrible disaster. We we part of the small bank of people who joined the Hands Across the Sands demonstration on June 26. Everyone is angry at BP and not real happy with the federal response. I think it is important that we take every opportunity to connect this disaster to more than the greed and carelessness of one company, or the failure of federal regulators. It also must be seen as a reminder of our need to move quickly to transition to clean energy–not only to avoid such disasters in the future but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many people I have talked to seem reluctant to see this connection. We must be part of the solution. Blaming the oil companies may feel good but it does not really get at the heart of the problem.

Comment by Larry Chamblin on July 5, 2010 3:25 pm

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