The Gulf of Mexico oil spill isn't making the headlines it did this summer, but that doesn't mean the oil is gone. More than three months since BP plugged its underwater gusher, crews are working to clean hundreds of miles of soiled shoreline from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.
On the Alabama coast, the waves that typically wash up shells on the beach at Gulf State Park are also churning up tar balls these days.
"It doesn't go away," says Teresa Carlisle, manager of the state fishing pier. She says most mornings, there's a fresh batch of weathered oil -- hardened clumps ranging in size from tiny pebbles to softballs.
"The wind moves the sand and uncovers stuff that was covered the day before," Carlisle says. "New stuff washes in the surf. It's evidence [of the oil spill] every day."
She hasn't seen big plumes of oil coming in since the summer. The impact is more subtle now -- like the faint orangey-brown line where the tide came in during the night.
"You can stand up here on the pier and look and see the difference in the sand," Carlisle says. "Like a light coffee or tea stain depending on how bad it is."
This is what the government calls "moderate to light oiling" -- a problem for 483 miles of the Gulf Coast. Another 93 miles, mostly in Louisiana, are experiencing "heavy oiling."
Charlie Henry is the government's scientific support coordinator for the oil spill response. It's not oil washing in fresh from the Gulf, he says, but pollution that may have been hidden until now.
"We're dealing more so with oil that's stranded into marshes," Henry says. "A lot of that oil is not mobile at all anymore. Sometimes we just find that when we have lower tide situations, especially with northern winds, that you can see oil that may not have been visible before."
On the Alabama coast, BP launched what it calls "Operation Deep Clean" last week. It involves mostly heavy equipment that digs down into the oily sand and sifts out the tar balls.
BP Spokesman Ray Melick says the tar balls and mats were formed when the oil connected with the sand and saltwater.
"Then as it was brought ashore, storms or whatever might blow it up into the swale back here and then the natural shifting of the sands, it would get buried," he says. "In some places it's as deep as 30 inches, most places it's six to 12 inches deep."
Melick says BP plans to have the beaches clean by the end of the year.
But in Alabama, Orange Beach Mayor Tonny Kennon says the cleanup is going too slow and isn't going far enough. He says BP should have been doing this deep cleaning long before now, and needs to be tackling more than just the tar balls on the beach.
"Concurrently, they should be cleaning the surf, cleaning the beach, and cleaning the stained sand and moving right down the beach," says Kennon. "And then they're through."
As long as tar mats remain in the surf, Kennon says, they're going to wash ashore day in and day out. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.