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oil spill clean up workers and tar balls Cleanup crews hit Pensacola Beach, Florida, raking the sands and sifting for tar balls (left). Tar balls have been washing up on beaches across the Gulf coast (right). (Photos: Marianna Day Massey/ (L); Amanda McCoy/MCT/Landov (R))

Tar Balls Dot Gulf Beaches

Texas Land Commissioner explains significance

By Erin Sheena | null null , null

Tar balls have been appearing on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico since oil companies first began drilling there. The recent British Petroleum oil spill, however, is now dotting beaches from Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida with more tar balls than ever before.

Tar balls are remnants of oil that leak into the ocean. They are often caused by natural seepage from marine vessels, oil and gas exploration, or in the case of the recent BP oil spill, from a blown-out undersea well.

After a spill, oil spreads into a slick along the water's surface. Waves and wind break the oil into smaller pieces that continue to mix with water, creating a compound that looks a lot like pudding. As these pieces continue to be tossed in the ocean, they get broken into even smaller pieces, which can eventually wind up on beaches.

According to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Texas has seen some BP tar balls, but the amount of beach contamination has remained about the same as during any season.

Tar balls can be tested to find out where they come from.

"You may chemically fingerprint the oil to identify the source," Patterson told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps in a recent interview.

Recently, tar balls dotted the shoreline in Galveston, Texas. Many feared the BP spill had made its way to the Lone Star State. After testing, however, experts announced that these tar balls were from a different source.

Unless you eat a tar ball, they pose very little risk to humans. Sea turtles, however, have been known to eat them with potentially fatal consequences.

So what should you do if you see a tar ball as you stroll along the beach?

"You can pick it up with a piece of paper and then place it in a bottle," Patter said. "If it is gooey, you would need to use baby oil to clean your hands."

Some people could have an allergic reaction or develop a rash if they are especially sensitive to chemicals. It is best to let the experts do the cleaning. 

"If you see a lot of tar balls, contact the Land Office or the Coast Guard, so they may clean up the beach," Patterson said.

Tar balls have almost no environmental impact and are much easier to clean up than crude oil, which is more likely to have a negative impact of the environment, he continued.

"Tar balls are cleaned up mechanically," Patterson said. "They are raked, shoveled and scraped. They are picked up like you would pick up apple cores off the beach."

According to Patterson, about 25 gallons of tar balls related to the oil spill have been cleaned from Texas beaches. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have had more of an impact.

"BP cleaned up the tar balls on the upper Texas coast and paid for all expenses," Patterson said. BP has pledged to pay up to $20 billion in damages to people and entities affected by the spill.

"The economic impact [of the oil spill], however, has been an issue on Texas," he said. "The moratorium on deep water drilling may continue to become a great impact in the future."
For more information on how the oil spill is affecting Texas, check out the Land Commission's website.


Kid Reporters investigate how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is being cleaned up and how the spill has impacted the people, animals, and environment of the Gulf coast. Their reports -- along with other useful resources -- can be found in the Gulf Oil Spill Recovery Special Report.


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