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Crews in race to clean barrier islands

GULF OF MEXICO — BP and the federal Park Service have brought in some heavy machinery to remove oil debris on Mississippi’s barrier islands before shifting winter tides bury it too deep.

Gulf Islands National Seashore superintendent Dan Brown tells The Mississippi Press that people using small sifters and hand shovels continue to work on the islands. The cleanup comes after a ruptured BP well spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for several weeks before workers capped the well in July.

“We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that we won’t have any hurricanes this year,” Brown said.

The sand-sifting devices pulled by tractors started operating on the barrier islands in Mississippi after successful tests about two weeks ago, Brown said. Island cleanup had been limited to small crews using hand tools in an effort to tread lightly around nesting sites of shorebirds, some of which are threatened or endangered.

Brown said tons of oil debris has been picked up using the crews but the Park Service realized that it was becoming necessary to remove surface oil as soon as possible.

“Preservation of the wilderness character of Horn and Petit Bois is of the utmost importance,” Brown said. “However, we only have a narrow window of opportunity in which to respond before the oil becomes too far embedded in the substrate to reach via mechanical means.

“These are tough choices that have to be made to ensure the islands’ natural processes are allowed to continue unimpeded.”

Brown said the park had to get special permission to use the German-made Beach Techs, which weigh about 4,000 pounds each, on the fragile islands.

“It took quite a bit to get to this point, because Petit Bois and Horn islands are designated wilderness areas and, by law, you’re not allowed to use vehicles and mechanized equipment in those areas,” Brown said.

By the end of the Labor Day weekend, five machines were operating on Horn, said Greg Knox, public information officer for BP in Mississippi, which is working with the Park Service on the effort.

Knox was not sure when any machines would start operating on Petit Bois.

He said that human observation combined with the machines should keep wildlife casualties to a minimum.

Brown said the machines are able to cover much more ground.

“At best, crews were maybe covering a tenth of a mile a day,” Brown said.

The sifters are able to cover at least several times that, he said.

The machines are most productive at night, when temperatures drop and the debris is less gooey, Brown said.

The Beach Techs flip sand into a screen where tarballs and debris are trapped and sand filters back onto the beach. They’ve also been operating in Florida for several weeks.

Brown said the accelerated island cleanup efforts should continue at least for the next several months before the stormy winter season cranks up sometime in November.


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