Summertime on Mississippi’s gulf coast is picturesque. During the normal high season, thousands of tourists plop their reclining polyester chairs in the sand, slather on sunscreen and squint their eyes while reading the latest tabloid in 80-degree sunshine.
But this July, the beaches are virtually empty. Replacing last year’s kaleidoscope of towels and umbrellas are tanks filled with tar balls, oil-stained clothing and other contaminated items.
An aerial surveillance flight conducted over the Mississippi coast on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. showed “sporadic tar balls” along beaches in Jackson, Harrison and Hancock Counties, while marsh areas were found with “staining, coating and debris. Total oil coverage in the marsh areas averaged 20 percent to 25 percent.”
On July 2, the Biloxi Sun Herald reported that local Mississippi leaders were concerned about the ultimate destination of these hazardous containers. While BP is financially responsible for handling all waste collected during the spill, it is partnering with each impacted state and third-party haulers to determine an appropriate disposal plan in that specific state.
But the oil-soaked items can only be taken to a landfill if they are deemed non-hazardous by the U.S. EPA. If it fails the test, it must be disposed of as hazardous waste. It is uncertain whether oil mixed with salt-water would pass these tests.
“The U.S. Coast Guard, in consultation with EPA, issued a directive to BP outlining our expectations for the management of waste and materials collected in the Gulf oil spill response,” says Betsaida Alcantara, deputy press secretary for the EPA. “This is a unique situation, and because of the potential impact on communities it deserves the highest level of oversight and accountability.”
The directive ensures that BP’s waste plans will receive community input, that all of their operations will be fully transparent and that state and federal authorities will have strong oversight roles throughout the process in order to monitor BP during the cleanup process.
Specifically, BP is required to document and post information on the disposal of all collected waste and materials, and to conduct regular sampling of solid and liquid waste to ensure that they are properly characterized and safely disposed. Those materials will then be transferred to facilities – identified by BP, approved by the EPA – that already have a longstanding compliance with local environmental standards.
BP says 761 tons of this oily waste has been buried at two landfills in Alabama and Florida, and 13,100 cubic yards have been buried in Louisiana, according to the Associated Press.