When the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig
exploded in the Gulf of Mexico April 20, it caused the
largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history — 1
million to 2 million barrels of oil and counting.
Now, more than two months later, environmental experts,
government officials, BP executives and others are still
trying to sort out what happened and pick up the pieces.
One thing is clear: Aquatics professionals in the Gulf
region are on the front lines and, for some, it may be a
long, oily summer. Because oil in water can release toxic
chemicals harmful to wildlife and humans, authorities have
prohibited swimming as far as Alabama and Mississippi. But
those beaches remain open for strolling and sunbathing,
even if they’re fouled with tarballs and other
residue. Weather and other variables will determine where
the oil slicks ultimately land. Some doomsday scenarios
predict it fouling waters all along the East Coast.
Meanwhile, endless images of oily waters and beaches play
on the nightly news.
The Gulf Shores are typically known for fine, powdery
white sand and calm, clear waters. But that was not the
case last month at a number of beaches, including Orange
Beach, Ala. The double red flags were flying, meaning it
was illegal for anyone to enter the water.
“We have lifeguards on the beach asking people
to get out of the water,” said Melvin Shepard,
city aquatics coordinator. “We had to cancel a
sailing program and a scuba program, which was to go into
the Gulf for the first time this year.”
Shepard noted that the normally pristine sand now has a
brownish-red tint, and the typically busy beaches are much
Indeed, without swimming, many Gulf Coast beach
communities are likely to experience a decrease in visitors
this summer. And fear could keep people away longer than
that. One indicator shows that since the oil spill, group
lodging cancellations at Gulf area hotels have increased as
much as 25 percent, according to a June survey by the
Knowland Group, a leading data firm for the global meetings
and conventions industry.
The news seems better in Florida, where less than 1
percent of beaches have been closed — so far,
according to Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, director of The
Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International
University in Miami.
“There’s a perception that the whole
Gulf is a tarball. Fishing has been quite curtailed, but so
far the [Florida] beaches have done very well compared to
what it could be,” Leatherman said, adding that
Florida tourism and fishing amounts to $526 billion a
The oil spill is affecting pools, too. With fewer
beaches, more people are likely to head to their local
aquatics facilities to cool off. Shepard has already seen
that phenomenon at the pool he operates. However, all that
foot traffic could cause overcrowding and pose other
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported
at least one e-mail requesting recommendations on how to
remove oil from commercial swimming pools. Apparently,
people walking on oily beaches are picking up residue as
they come in contact with tarballs. When those contaminated
individuals jump into pools, they’re tracking in
Rich Martin, business manager of the Recreational Water
Program, NSF International, offers this advice:
“In general, if it sinks to the bottom, vacuum it
out of the pool into a separate catch/containment. Get it
out of the water- and treatment stream fast, and try to
avoid sending this muck into the filters.
"Automatic pool-bottom cleaners with the attached catch
bags may work to pick up the ¼-inch to
½-inch oil/dirt blobs and keep from sending it to
the filters," Martin stated. "But if they are in suspension
… old-fashioned manual skimming may be
Ultimately, he added, officials will need to know which
chemicals were used as spill dispersants so they can
develop further treatment recommendations.