ST. PETERSBURG — This summer, when every wave washing ashore in the Florida Panhandle carried tar balls or gooey globs, scientists said they feared the oil would also bury itself in sediments just offshore and continue showing up for months or years afterward.
Now they're saying that may not happen after all.
Scientists with the University of South Florida who took samples off the Panhandle's hardest-hit beaches last month reported Thursday that they found "no visually identifiable oil" there. And when they dug into the sediment offshore, they found "no visible buried oil" either, their report says.
As a result, their report says, "we believe that it is unlikely that significant amounts of new oil from the nearshore will be washed onto the beach during storms."
But that doesn't guarantee that the beaches will remain oil-free when the storms hit. USF geologists found that even on beaches that had been cleaned by crews hired by BP, oil still lurked just below the surface, usually 6 inches to a foot down.
As a result, the study says, "erosion of buried beach oil and subsequent redistribution is expected during storms."
Thursday's report was produced by a team led by geologist Ping Wang. They surveyed an area that stretched from Gulf Shores, Ala., east to the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island between Sept. 23 and 27.
Divers collected 60 sediment cores and 60 surface sediment samples just off the beaches in waters 9 to 45 feet deep. Samples also were collected in areas such as Pensacola Bay and Perdido Bay, which suffered some of the brunt of the oil contamination in Florida this summer.
Further laboratory tests are being conducted to look for further hydrocarbon contamination, which often can be invisible and is detected only through sophisticated laboratory tests, USF officials said.