Scientists say sandy clumps on Sunset Beach contained BP oil from 2010 spill

Published June 30, 2015

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster off the coast of Louisiana dumped between 3 million and 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists now say they have proof that a little bit of it wound up on a Pinellas County beach.

Small sand patties that washed ashore along a 30-yard stretch of Sunset Beach near Caddy's on the Beach restaurant in Treasure Island contained traces of the Deepwater Horizon oil, as well as of the chemical dispersant that BP sprayed on the spill, according to a just-published paper by scientists from the University of South Florida.

The amount was too small to be any threat to humans, unless for some reason a beachgoer ate one, according to one of the paper's authors, John Paul. Nevertheless, BP officials do not believe it's really the company's oil.

The scientists came across those strange little clumps by accident, Paul said.

In January 2013, nearly three years after the spill, Paul said a friend told him "his girlfriend was walking on the beach and she stepped in some Deepwater Horizon oil."

"They were like little, firm pieces of sand that you had put some Elmer's glue in to hold it together," Paul said Monday.

USF scientists took samples of the patties and carefully compared their contents to samples found along the Panhandle beaches that were among the hardest hit by the BP oil. They found a match to the BP oil, according to the paper published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

They also compared it to samples from a 1993 oil spill that resulted from a tanker collision in Tampa Bay. The oil from the 1993 spill did not match the oil that was in the sand patties, they said.

As further evidence of the origin of the oil particles, scientists said they found traces of the dispersant Corexit. BP used nearly 2 million gallons of Corexit on the spill — a record amount — trying to break up the oil before it could form a slick and wash up on the beaches and in the marshes.

Prior USF studies found that traces of the oil from Deepwater Horizon had landed on the underwater shelf off Florida's west coast, but this marks the first time anyone has found that the oil made it all the way to one of Pinellas' famous beaches.

However, BP vice president Geoff Morrell contended that the USF paper was based on faulty science, and that "the researchers did not conduct the type of rigorous chemical analysis necessary to determine the source of the material found at Sunset Beach in January 2013."

USF officials have not publicized the paper, which was published about two weeks ago.

"We've been not wanting to draw attention to this," Paul said. "The last thing we want to do is cause a panic."

Instead, the paper was sent to the Tampa Bay Times by a publicist for attorney Steve Yerrid, who is representing the city of Tampa in a lawsuit against BP.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.