MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Dark-amber mats of oil as big as a large man’s foot sit on the sand 10 feet from the water, and farther inland along the beaches of Horn Island’s west end.
In the heat, they break apart like firm cookie dough — and smell like the floor of a mechanic shop.
Along the north shore yesterday, a 100-yard stretch of upland beach was littered with a zigzag line of the flat, greasy pads of gritty oil, the size of a cell phone and smaller.
Some litter the sand in areas where shore birds were nesting.
Horn Island ranger Ben Moore said he sprints past fields of smaller tar balls in the upland sand when he takes his morning runs.
Two fly fishermen reported a chunky piece of black goo a foot in diameter in the surf last week on the south side of the island.
And recreational boater Nick Mason pointed out a swarm of quarter-sized tar globs floating around his boat anchored on the north side of the island yesterday.
BP knows. Spokesman Ray Melick said the company is gearing up to return to Horn Island with sand-cleaning crews as soon as the National Park Service issues clearance.
But he said the company hasn’t settled on a way to deal with oil residue in the water.
So far the oil giant hasn’t tackled the floating globs, the film of discoloration on boat hulls and people’s legs from playing in the surf and sand and the thick, asphalt-like mats on the sea bottom near the islands.
Melick said BP has crews out looking and recording locations and suggests people report any oil they see.
BP is using a tractor with an arm to reach into the surf in Alabama and Florida. It scoops up the asphalt material created by weathered oil settling to the bottom. Those same mats exist off the Mississippi barrier islands.
Horn Island has been the hardest hit since the BP spill began coming ashore in summer 2010. Crews removed 318 tons from the 14-mile-long island in October alone.
Altogether, the barrier islands stopped 1,732 tons of oil — gooey, dry, hard, soft and sandy.
Then cleanup stopped on most of the islands.
The National Park Service, which manages Horn and the others that make up the Gulf Islands National Seashore, said shore birds needed to nest in peace after last year’s upheaval with the BP spill and cleanup.
Then, eight sea turtle nests were discovered, adding to the need to leave the islands alone for a while longer, said Park Service Superintendent Dan Brown.
Melick said BP doesn’t expect to be back at work until late August or early September.
The only significant cleaning done since March was half of Cat Island, where crews collected 22 tons over four months, Melick said. During those same months, there have been no crews on Horn, Petit Bois and most of both Ship islands.
And oil mats have continued to wash in or be uncovered on those islands.
BP is setting up to launch 20 to 30 boats for its Pascagoula site carrying 200 to 400 crews for the islands as soon as state and federal officials give the go-ahead.
In the meantime, two fishermen in the surf off the southeast side of Deer Island found a field of rock-hard, weathered, oil-like asphalt on the bottom, about 20 feet from shore.
Deer is not part of the federal park and is much closer to the mainland.
They were in less than two feet of water and felt the golf ball-sized pieces.
“It was loaded with them,” said Kenny Evans, one of the fishermen. “You could pick dozens of them up at one time. They were everywhere.”
Melick said that was particularly disconcerting, because state and federal agencies have already signed off on Deer Island as being cleaned.
He said recent dredging might have brought the pieces to the surface. He said he considers it reported and will send a team.
Tar balls were also reported on the mainland, found yesterday on the beach and in the water south of Cowan Road in Gulfport.
BP is continuing to respond and pick up oil, Melick said.
The BP goal is to hit the islands as soon as it has clearance, clean them in 60 to 90 days and be done with what it calls response to the oil spill.
Once the state and federal agencies sign off on that final cleanup, then BP and the Coast Guard go into a monitoring and maintenance phase. When oil is reported, it will be tested to see if it’s what they call 252, for the section of Gulf where the Deepwater Horizon well blew in April 2010.
Over the next three years, like the response to the asphalt off Deer Island, BP and the Coast Guard will log reports of oil and BP will clean it if it’s Deepwater Horizon crude.
“After a hurricane, if a wad of stuff shows up and it’s 252, BP will be responsible for it,” Melick said. “In the future, that’s how hurricane response will be handled.”
How about 10 years from now?
“I don’t know if I want to stick my neck out and say 10 years,” Melick said.