Special Reports

Signs of oil spill found off Alabama coast

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — The Common Loon cafe is still serving oysters caught each morning locally, but they aren’t serving them to the hundreds of BP contract laborers who are on the island for oil spill preparation.

That’s one of the complaints that local business people have with BP.

With beach rentals down tremendously, BP isn’t housing its crews here either.

“I don’t know what kind of backward thinking that is,” said resident Patrick Hemphill. “Seems like it would be an easy solution.”

He has attended at least one of the town meetings called on the island since the oil spill became a threat. It was mostly the business owners who attended, he said, talking about cancellations and revenues down. Over the weekend, the first confirmed tar balls came ashore.

The ferry reported a 70 percent decrease in traffic, from the first weekend in May to this past one. Barnacle Bill’s Bill Lindley, an island business owner for 22 years, said he’s not seeing any tourists or sport fishermen as the island sits on the brink of its tourist season.People just aren’t showing up.

Hemphill said Dauphin Island makes a living attracting repeat guests from all over the country. The ones farthest away are the ones most likely to cancel, he said. They can’t take a chance on a ruined vacation if the oil comes in.

On the west end of the island, where so many of the elevated, rental houses stand, the oil spill response teams are building an 8- to 10-foot high sand berm for three miles along the south side. It’s built one dump-truck load at a time to keep storms from washing oil across that end of the island.

Access to the area is restricted to people with passes.

On the other end, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a marine research center funded by a consortium of Alabama universities and colleges, is taking trips into the Gulf.

They come back with evidence of the spill and the rig blast.

In the freezer at the lab, Monty Graham, senior marine scientist, has a piece of charred material that oozes oil when it begins to thaw. They found several pieces of it floating 38 miles south of Dauphin Island.

It’s like a two-fisted chunk of lava. He touches only with gloves on.

The chunk, Graham said, is believed to have been created when the rig exploded. It was formed from asphalt-like material that occurs in crude oil and may have been extracted and stored on the rig. The burned smell of it and the gas bubbles in it that made it a floating solid were likely created during the explosion, he said.

The longer it stayed at room temperature, the more it began to smell and ooze.

“If I put this out in the sun, it would drip oil,” he said.

Beach-goers Sunday reported something different, much smaller tar balls washing up.

Those, Graham said, are believed to be coming from the crude that’s spewing at the rig site, the first to reach the Alabama coast.BP contractors picked up the ones Sunday under orders from the Coast Guard.

Graham said he and others studying the chemical makeup of this crude and the heavier asphalt material from it believe there will be some fairly fresh tar balls from the oil gusher washing ashore.

“They are just starting to arrive,” he said. “They will be all along the Gulf Coast.”

Some will be more weathered and less gooey than others.

In the surf along 350 yards of public beach is a rather experimental, multi-colored rope with thousands of light-weight tentacles swaying in the surf, designed to catch oil if it arrives. It’s called snare boom.

Graham said the lab will likely be involved in the damage-assessment phase of the spill, not containment or cleanup. But he said they’re still not sure how they will fit in.

As far as island life and all the complaints, he said, “You have to filter everything because everyone on the island is going to be impacted.”He called it a “hurry up and wait mode right now.”

To weekend reports that tar balls occur naturally along beaches, island police dispatch supervisor Patricia Pereida said not on her watch on this island.

She said the three reports of tar balls they received on Sunday were the first she recalls in 18 years of police communications work here.But tar balls aren’t the only change to the beach scene.

Camped along beach parking sites were security patrols with ATVs; Coast Guard blues; four television satellite trucks, including one from West Palm Beach, Fla., and a steady stream of dump trucks and helmeted workers hauling booms.