Special Reports

First oil 'tar balls' hit Mississippi beaches (with photo galleries)

BILOXI, Miss. — The first bits of “tar balls” from the Gulf oil spill have begun washing ashore in Mississippi and on its barrier islands, the Coast Guard said Thursday.

But they are small, few and far between and appear to be from the offshore burning aimed at getting rid of the spill, a spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour said.

“They found some small tar balls (Wednesday) that were widely dispersed on West Ship Island, Horn Island and on the beach near Pass Christian,” said Dan Turner, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour. “(Thursday) in the Long Beach area there were some very small tar balls.”

Coast Guard Capt. Steven Poulin said Thursday that the material had been found on Mississippi shores and appears to be from the Gulf spill. He said tar balls and “tar patties” had also been found on Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores in Alabama and Perdido Key in Florida.

To the west, tar balls have been found in Louisiana this week, including some at South Pass in Plaquemines Parish. Off the coast of Terrebonne Parish, tar balls were reported at Whiskey Island and some oily residue was found at Raccoon Island. As of Thursday afternoon no oil had been found west of Terrebonne Parish, according to the Associated Press.

Mississippi officials said over the weekend they were receiving many false reports of tar balls. They also had a false report of an oil slick between Ship Island and Gulfport; this turned out to be a swath of red algae. The nearest part of the oil spill is still 30 miles from Mississippi’s shores.

Poulin said: “I am pleased that the tar balls that have come ashore have been cleaned up and cleaned up quickly, and there has not been a disruption to the community. This area is still open for business, as I’ve heard Gov. Riley (Ala.), Gov. Barbour and Gov. Crist (Fla.) say.”

BP and federal officials have been using “controlled burns” near the damaged offshore well, and Poulin and Turner said experts suspect the bits being found in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are of burned oil.

Turner said the tar balls are very small and spread out, “like every 100 yards or 200 yards, not concentrated in any area” in Mississippi.

“If you’re going to have tar balls, the best-case scenario is that it’s been burned, removed the volatility and the more harmful chemicals — that it’s been consumed,” Turner said.

A piece of boom, the fencing being used to corral or block oil, also was found at Cat Island on Thursday, Turner said. He said it was covered with an orange, oily residue and is being tested. He said officials are unsure whether “it’s something we put out, or whether it’s something they were using over in Louisiana.”

At a news briefing Thursday in Mobile, Poulin said, “There is no imminent threat of oil impacting Mississippi, Alabama or Florida in (current projections).” NOAA and other officials have said the modeling and projections are typically accurate for two to three days.

Turner said: “We have a long way to go before we’re out of the woods, but we’re certainly not in grave danger at this point. I think (Gov. Barbour) probably said it best: We think if we get hit with something, we’re going to get hit with something that will be manageable.”