Hurricane Irene sea foam wasn’t sewage, Ocean City official says

September 1, 2011

Sometimes sea foam is just sea foam.

A clip of a local TV reporter being coated from head to toe in goopy, green-brown froth during a live report from Ocean City during Hurricane Irene rippled around the Internet this week, accompanied by reports that the “sea foam” was windblown ocean water mixed with . . . raw sewage. Even David Letterman weighed in with a Top Ten list about the incident.

With an eye toward preserving the town’s reputation, officials in Ocean City have spent the better part of the week insisting otherwise and demanding that the media correct reports about the episode.

The city’s communications manager, Donna Abbott, described the substance that covered Tucker Barnes, meteorologist for WTTG (Channel 5), as “naturally occurring sea foam” that didn’t contain sewage, raw or otherwise.

“Everyone who called it toxic human waste didn’t know what they were talking about,” Abbott said in an interview. “No one called us to verify a thing. There’s no sewage in our water. We’d never allow anyone in our waters if there was a public-health threat.”

WTTG forecaster Sue Palka may have put this foul ball in play as Barnes stood on the boardwalk, looking like a sci-fi creature as foam slimed him from head to toe. Palka told viewers that sea foam typically occurs during storms as a result of “some other matter in the water” such as “proteins [or] some sewage.” She concluded, “So it’s actually probably not real healthy, Tucker. . . . We want you to shower really well later.”

Links to the clip started popping up on social media sites almost immediately after Barnes appeared on Fox 5 on Saturday. (He later did a similar live report for the Fox-owned station in New York.) The Washington Post described the stuff blizzarding Barnes as “sewage-laden sea foam.” The New York Daily News said it was “raw sewage.” Fox News Channel trotted out an in-house health expert, Marc Siegel, who worried that “toxins” in the foam could cause birth defects.

On Monday, Letterman played the clip and offered a Top Ten list of “Thoughts Going Through This Guy’s Mind at This Moment.” A sampling: No. 6: “ ‘Sea foam’ sounds so much better than ‘toxic human waste.’ ” No. 5: “ ‘At least it’s not . . . oh, wait . . .Yes, it is!’ ”

It very likely isn’t.

Ocean City shut down its wastewater treatment plant as the storm approached Saturday to prevent a spill or leak, said Jim Parsons, chief deputy director of the town’s public works department. In any case, he said, Ocean City doesn’t dump raw sewage into the water; it treats it according to Environmental Protection Agency standards and then releases it a mile out to sea.

Parsons said that the water off Ocean City is tested regularly for pollutants and that the area is rated among the cleanest in the country by environmental groups. He doesn’t recall a single beach closure in Ocean City because of water pollution during his 28-year career.

Marine biologist Elizabeth Venrick said that sea foam is created when high surf or high winds whip up “dissolved organic material.” Such material, she said, comes from decaying marine plant and animal life but is also composed of “all sorts of stuff” contributed by humans.

“The real question is: Is it harmful?” asked Venrick, of the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her answer: “Generally not,” unless the organic material is largely caused by a sewage spill or toxic algae bloom — in which case, the answer is “probably yes.” The foam usually goes away a few days after the “whipping” stops, she said.

In fact, such massive frothing action occurs all over the world. YouTube is filled with videos of similar inundations, shot on beaches in Australia, New Zealand, Washington state and elsewhere. In one such video, a beach in South Africa appears to be swamped by what looks like a giant bubble bath.

But such phenomena have rarely been seen on live television, particularly when many viewers were housebound by a big storm. Which raises a variation on an age-old question: If the sea foams and a TV reporter isn’t there to stand in it, did it happen at all?

farhip@washpost.com

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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