WSFA 12 News Special Report: Toxic Tar Balls

Published: May. 13, 2013 at 4:42 PM CDT|Updated: May. 23, 2013 at 2:23 PM CDT
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Just this year, crews have collected more than 8,000 pounds of tar on Alabama's shores - that's equivalent to the weight of two cars.  WSFA 12 News picked up at least 2 pounds in a short walk along Orange Beach back in March.

We took the tar balls to Auburn University researchers to find out if the tar balls are in fact from the BP oil spill.  Professor Dr. Prabhakar Clement has studied the BP oil spill since tar started washing up on Alabama's shores. "We got all kinds of samples from day one," he tells us.

Dr. Clement has run an analysis on each of his samples and confirmed it did in fact come from the BP oil spill.  He and his team of researchers will do the same with the tar balls WSFA 12 News collected. They'll answer two questions: 'Is this tar ball a result of the BP oil spill' and 'Why do we care?'

First, they'll run the analysis to look at certain compounds to tell if it is BP's oil.  Dr. Clement says, "This is exactly like a crime scene investigation. You essentially look for a fingerprint."

Dr. Clement's test reveals the fingerprint from our tar ball is a match to BP. "This sample did come from Deep Water Horizon" Next, the researchers run a chemical analysis.

"These are one of the most carcinogenic or cancer forming contaminants." The chemicals Dr. Clement says he found have been known to cause cancer.

Dr. Clement compares our sample to ones he has collected over the past three years to determine if the chemicals are breaking down. His findings are troubling.  He says,"Some of these compounds, when they get trapped in the tar mats, are persisting." Dr. Clement adds, "Which means they are getting into the environment which has a potential ramification. We don't know. We don't want to scare people."

What will be the long term effect - Dr. Clement doesn't know.  That's why he says it's important to continue to study the oil spill and its remnants that continue to wash up on Alabama's beaches. "Maybe it will be okay; maybe it won't," he says.  "When we tamper with nature, let's be careful."

We reached out to BP for a response.  A company spokesperson told us that a government study found the concentrations of this residual oil are below EPA-established levels of concern for human health. He added, BP has spent more than $14 billion and nearly 70 million personnel hours on response and clean up activity. The company says BP remains committed to address residual oil should it appear on the shoreline.

Auburn University has published a report on its findings.  Read it here.

Click here to read the email response from Ray Mellick of BP.

Copyright 2013 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.