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Federal Science Report Analyzes Environmental Risks and Benefits of Additional Clean Up for Sensitive Beaches in the Gulf

NEW ORLEANS —Today the Gulf Coast Incident Management Team released a report from its interagency Operational Science Advisory Team 2 about oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that remains on or near sandy beaches along the Gulf Coast.

The report is intended to inform ongoing beach-area clean up operations by examining the environmental and human health risks posed by three types of remnant oil – tar mats in the shallow water, small tar balls on the shore and buried oil on beaches above the high tide line – that may remain in certain beach-areas after standard clean up operations are completed.  These risks are compared to the potential environmental impacts of pursuing additional cleanup operations.

Titled "Summary Report for Fate and Effects of Remnant Oil in the Beach Environment," the report examines data sampled from four representative beaches at Grand Isle, La., Petit Bois Island, Miss., Bon Secour, Ala., and Fort Pickens, Fla. The report will help guide oil spill responders’ transition to monitoring and maintenance operations to address remnant oil deposits that remain on beaches that have already been successfully cleaned. During monitoring and maintenance, cleanup crews will conduct periodic inspections of beaches, receive reports from the public, and conduct cleanups as needed.

Results of a net environmental benefit analysis summarized in the report indicate that environmental impacts of remnant oil found on or near beaches after cleanup operations are relatively minor, and that cleanup operations beyond established standards may disturb sensitive habitats and wildlife – posing a greater environmental risk than leaving the residue in place. In these instances, further cleaning will likely do more harm than good to the ecosystem.

NEBA is based on collected samples and laboratory analysis, environmental models, and a review of existing literature. This process evaluates risks posed to species such as birds, sea turtles, small mammals, and aquatic species.  The report also examined human health risks from residual oil compared to Environmental Protection Agency benchmarks. OSAT2 weighed the risks and benefits of leaving remnant oil in place or removing it with the goal of achieving the quickest possible recovery for the area.

Key findings in the report include:

  • Calculated human health effects from short and long-term exposures from remnant oil are below established EPA benchmarks for concern.
  • There exists a minimal risk of oil leaching into groundwater from buried oil due to the combined effects of weathering, biodegradation, and the location of buried oil.
  • Aggressive cleanup beyond established standards may likely threaten overall aquatic and wildlife resources. However, the report notes two particular routes of exposure that may pose potentially elevated risks to wildlife: (1) possible ingestion of tarballs by adult, subsurface-probing shore birds and (2) the risk of contact between buried oil and sea turtle eggs and young, both of which may require further study or monitoring to fully understand the risks or develop appropriate mitigation strategies.

This report will assist the Federal On-Scene Coordinator for the BP Deepwater oil spill response as they work with state and local officials and environmental trustees to make determinations about when it would be best to stop or minimize active cleanups.  The final determination that no further treatment activity is required at a given site will be made in agreement with federal, state and local authorities.

This report is not intended to quantify the overall impacts of the spill to these beaches, which is the purview of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process; rather, it is intended to inform ongoing operational decisions by evaluating clean up and mitigation options based on current risks and conditions.  

The report was written by members of the Operational Science Advisory Team, which consisted of relevant scientific experts from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, EPA, and BP.  Contributions were also made by Temple University, and Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health and consultation and advice was provided by members of the federal Joint Analysis Group, a body that was established during the spill to assist in evaluating and analyzing response data.  

In keeping with the federal government's commitment to transparency, this report and all the associated data on which it is based are being made available to the public on www.restorethegulf.gov.

For more information, please contact the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center at (713) 323-1670.

Click here to download a copy of the OSAT 2 report

Click here for additional report data