GULF SHORES, Ala. - Finding tar balls linked to the BP oil spill isn't difficult on some Gulf Coast beaches, but the company and the government say it isn't common enough to keep sending out the crews that patrolled the sand for three years in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
Tourist John Henson of Atlanta disagrees, particularly after going for a walk in the surf last week and coming back with dark, sticky stains on his feet.
Henson said there were plenty of tar balls to remove from the stretch of beach where he spent a few days, regardless of what any company or government agency might say.
"I was out there yesterday and stepped all in it," Henson said.
Environmental advocates and casual visitors alike are questioning the Coast Guard decision to quit sending out BP-funded crews that have looked for oil deposits on northern Gulf Coast beaches on a regular basis since the 2010 spill spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf after an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers.
The patrols ended this month as coastal monitoring reverted to the way it operated before the spill: The Coast Guard investigates beach pollution reported by the public through a federal system, the National Response Center, and conducts cleanup operations as needed.
BP PLC, which has spent $14 billion on cleanup work, is still working with the government and says it will still pay for the removal of any lingering tar from its blown-out Deepwater Horizon well.
Cleaning crews will remain on duty in Louisiana, which was hit harder by the spill than other states because the well was so near its coast.
But with only "minute amounts" of oil being reported on most beaches now as compared with three years ago, it was time to end the practice of sending out teams in four-wheel vehicles with portable toilets on a regular basis, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Natalie Murphy said. The work itself can pose an environmental threat by damaging bird habitat and sea turtle nests, wildlife officials say.
"There was an imbalance that had to be addressed," Murphy said.
The oppressive chemical smells and thick oil deposits that polluted beaches during the summer of 2010 are long gone. White sand unmarred by tar stretches for miles on popular beaches along the Florida Panhandle and on Alabama's coast. The same is true in Mississippi, where the coastal economy depends more on gambling and shipbuilding than tourism.
But government reports show that patches of tar balls are still reported almost daily in or near popular spots like Gulf Shores and Pensacola Beach, Fla.
For example, 96 reports of tar balls spotted in coastal Baldwin County came in from April 1 through the middle of last week; 96 tar ball reports were submitted for Escambia County, Fla., over the same period. Those reports come in through the National Response Center, which has a toll-free number and website for reporting tar balls.
Some of the reports were submitted by trained crews that identified the oil as being from the BP well. Murphy said all the reports of tar balls she has heard involved oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Currently based in Gulf Shores, 20 trained Coast Guardsmen fan out under the National Response Center system to check reports of tar balls in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi and begin the cleanup once reports come in, Murphy said. BP is typically contacted to provide assistance for large concentrations of oil, she said, and the company gets a bill if the Coast Guard has to clean up smaller deposits linked to the spill.
BP crews cleaned the beach where Henson stepped in tar balls on Friday, the day after the company said it got a call about the pollution from the Coast Guard. Records show the federal reporting database contained notes about tar balls being found in the same area five days earlier.
Environmentalists say a big problem with the system lies in the fact that many beach visitors may not know a tar ball if they see one. Tar balls and weathered tree bark closely resemble each other in the surf, and both are common along areas like coastal Alabama, where Mobile Bay empties both water and natural debris into the Gulf.
The uncertainty over just what is a tar ball leaves most people on the coast unable to report beach pollution even if they have the correct phone number, said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, a nonprofit group that advocates for coastal preservation and protection.
"That's what worries me," said Callaway. "Until you step on (tar) and see it on your skin, you don't know what it is. It looks like gum in the water. And nobody is doing an education campaign on, `This is what a tar ball looks like; here's who to call if you find one.'"
Murphy said the Coast Guard is trying to spread the word about tar balls through the media, but it's leaving it to property owners, environmentalists, condominium associations and other private groups to post signs or distribute fliers that could help in identification.
Sitting with their family near a concentration of tar balls at Little Lagoon Pass in Gulf Shores, Rick and Amanda Taylor of Tuscaloosa said the spill pollution wasn't nearly as bad this summer as in previous years since the spill. And the tar balls aren't too difficult to identify, they said: They're the dark, sandy globs that leave your hands a sticky mess.
"They're still here," Rick Taylor said. "There should be some kind of follow-up."