The effort to clean oil from Florida's shoreline is shifting gears, federal and BP officials announced Wednesday.
Rather than constantly sweeping the beaches and marshes for tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the crews will pull back and wait to be summoned.
"This is the point at which we can stand down our active cleanup and go to a 'maintenance and monitoring' stage," said Jaqui Michel, lead National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientist for shoreline cleanup and assessment operations.
In some areas, including national and state parks, that will mean knowingly leaving some oil buried because trying to clean it all up may cause more long-term damage, federal officials said.
They made it clear, though, that this change does not mean the cleanup is over.
"This doesn't mean we're reaching an end point," said Liz Jones, also of NOAA. "This winter, storms may uncover additional subsurface oil that will require cleanup."
The beaches affected are all in the Panhandle, primarily in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, although there may be some in Walton and Bay counties as well. Those are the counties that saw waves of oil, mousse and tar balls washing ashore all summer.
The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in April, and by June, goo from the gushing oil well was fouling the famously white beaches near Pensacola. Although the well was capped July 15, oil continues washing ashore. As of last Friday, federal officials reported that 115 miles of Florida shoreline was "experiencing light to trace oil impacts."
Even as crews have cleaned the oil off the beaches, though, scientists from the University of South Florida have found plenty they left behind — oil that trickled down beneath the surface.
To document where that subsurface oil might be, crews have used an auger to drill 2,000 3-foot-deep holes in Escambia County's beaches so far, said Andrew Milanes of Environmental Science Services, the Louisiana contractor BP hired to oversee beach cleanup in Florida.
The shift to simply monitoring the shoreline for further contamination will occur gradually, as each segment hits a certain target. The targets vary according to how much public use the shoreline gets, Michel said.
In areas that see plenty of beachgoers — Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach and Destin, for instance — the crews are supposed to make sure there is no visible oil at all, Michel said. In areas such as Eglin Air Force Base that see far less public use, the crews are aiming for "less than 1 percent visible oil debris," she said.
And then in areas such as Perdido Key State Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore, where least terns and endangered sea turtles nest on the beaches, the cleanup will not be as extensive simply to avoid further damage to those areas, she said.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.