Harvey H. Jackson: The days of gooey stuff on our beaches have returned
May 20, 2010 | 1951 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
News that tar balls from British Petroleum’s blown oil well are drifting up on some beaches brought back a rush of memories that I would rather forget.

Tar balls.

Those of us who have been going to the beach for more years than we would like to admit will recall that once, in addition to suntan lotion (before the days of sunscreen), towels, a cooler and the other necessities, some parents took along small bottles of kerosene and baby oil.

The kerosene was for taking off the tar. The baby oil was to wash away anything that was left behind to irritate the skin of the child who picked up or stepped on the little black lump sitting in the sand.

Back in the ’50s, tar balls were a regular occurrence on the beach. Like jellyfish and seaweed, they were something we just figured we had to deal with. They washed up and sat there waiting, and I personally believed that if there was a tar ball anywhere along the shore, it would find me.

Some folks said ships leaked the stuff and it washed ashore. Sounded reasonable to me. But I really did not care how it got there. I only wished it would stop.

Then it did.

Maybe tighter environmental regulations. Maybe better ships. Maybe … who knows? But fewer and fewer tar balls floated in. Parents adjusted and stopped bringing kerosene; pretty soon, all you could smell at the beach was cocoa butter and Coppertone.

I haven’t seen a tar ball down there in years.

But this summer I might.

Although as I write this, the oil spill seems to be drifting west and the beaches of Baldwin County and beyond may be mostly spared, the very thought of having to clean tar from between my toes gives me the shivers. (Step on a tar ball and it squirts between your toes. It is a proven scientific fact.)

I have trouble reaching my toes on my best days, so the task of cleaning will likely fall to my lovely wife, who will take no delight in it. I guess this is what the preacher meant by “for better or for worse.”

As this crisis unfolded, I got an e-mail from a beach buddy with Texas connections. In our exchange, he mentioned that though the tar balls disappeared from the Alabama and Florida beaches, bottles of tar-cleaner were standard at the foot of the walkovers leading from the beach along the coast of the Lone Star State. Tar balls still wash up there.

And what was the origin of this goo? The drilling rigs that were supposedly environmentally safe. For the most part they were — no massive spills like the one heading for the Louisiana marshes — but lots of little oozings.

And how could this be?

Because for all the talk about the safety of offshore drilling (I drank some of that Kool-Aid, too), the fact is that the government, yours and mind, exempted Gulf of Mexico drilling companies from requirements to have plans in place to deal with a major spill. It allowed BP and Deepwater Horizon to sink that well without even the usual environmental analysis.

And how did we come to this?

Years from now, when historians try to follow the thread that leads from there to here, they might well start in 1969, when an oil platform blew up off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. This led to the passage of President Richard Nixon’s National Environmental Policy Act, which declared a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic but, thanks to Southern congressmen and oil company lobbyists, exempted the Gulf.

What followed was a series of presidential administrations that slowly but surely let representatives of extractive industries, oil being only one, take over the agencies that were supposed to regulate them. This has continued right on up to the Obama administration, which was criticized for putting Ken Salazar at the head of the Department of Interior despite his recent Senate voting record that favored the petroleum industry.

Which gets us back to tar balls.

Maybe the best way to get these folks to appreciate what they allowed to happen would be to bring them down to help clean up the mess. If former Presidents Clinton and Bush have the time to deal with Haiti, they should be able to spare a week for the Gulf Coast. President Obama has his plate pretty full, but he could send Secretary Salazar down for a few days. Pitch in a congressional delegation or two, plus a few executives from BP, and maybe they will get the message.

Just one condition.

Stay away from my toes.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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