Alabama island's beaches covered with 'tar patties' from oil spill

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 8:18 PM

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. -- Pancake-sized blobs of oil have begun washing ashore in this barrier-island beach town, as significant amounts of oil from the BP spill make landfall in new places far to the east of Louisiana.

The oil appeared on this 14-mile island in the Gulf of Mexico -- attached to land by a bridge -- on Tuesday. Small "tarballs" had appeared before, Mayor Jeff Collier said, but these were different: they were sticky "tar patties," as big as a flattened palm.

"There were hundreds of 'em," on the beach, Collier said. "And you could easily see lots more of them in the surf water."

Collier said that he worried the new appearance of oil would worsen an already-terrible summer: summer rentals were being canceled, and Memorial Day traffic was down by at least half.

"They come here to enjoy the beach, to enjoy the water, and for fishing and swimming," Collier said. "Now they can't do any of that."

On Wednesday afternoon, crews wearing rubber gloves patrolled one section of the island's main beach, scooping up small maroon-colored tar balls out of the surf with kitty-litter scoops. Here and there were clear plastic garbage bags, their insides streaked with oil. The job was made harder by the appearance of hundreds of hermit crabs out of the water: little gnarled lumps about the size and color of a tarball.

"Tarballs don't walk," one worker said, asked how he told the difference.

Nearby, 37-year-old Joe Miller was enjoying the sun and the fine-sand beach. There was nothing else to do: his business renting jet skis had shut down because of warnings about swimming in the water.

"It's nauseating," said Miller, who lives on the island, one of about 1,300 residents. He compared the experience to waking up and remembering that a loved one had recently died. "I wake up in the morning thinking it was just a bad dream. And I wake up and every day it's getting worse."

He looked down at the workers, walking in the surf and scooping tar balls a few yards away.

"They're going to be walking for 10 years, getting it a teaspoon at a time," Miller said.

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