PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. - The sugar white sand along Pensacola Beach looks pristine. The sparkling gulf water is clear and green.
One-year after the Gulf oil spill, tourists are back to soak-up the Pensacola Beach sun. Restaurants and hoteliers are hoping for a comeback summer.
"I'm happy to report the beaches are in excellent condition. We've completed mechanical operations on all the beaches up there. We're maintaining some crew up there to patrol and monitor so we can keep an eye on things, and respond to anything if necessary," said BP representative Keith Rupp.
A BP representative has said that oiled sand was removed, sifted, and put back on the beach last summer. A federal report released by independent scientists in February said the clean-up was a success and University of South Florida scientists reported the same.
But we learned clean does not mean oil-free.
Researcher Rip Kirby is part of a USF study documenting the effects of the oil spill on Panhandle beaches.
We met him on a public beach just west of Pensacola Beach called Fort Pickens Federal Preserve -- one of four beaches heavily oiled during the spill. Fort Pickens has a sensitive natural habitat and was primarily hand-cleaned, unlike the other amenity beaches.
The National Park Service made the recommendation to leave buried layers of oil in place on the non-amenity part of Fort Pickens. The sand here was cleaned to a depth of 6 inches below the surface so as not to disturb the fragile habitat. Visible subsurface oil on nearby amenity beaches was cleaned 18 inches below the sand's surface.
That’s why Kirby said he brought special equipment.
"It has the ability to emit U-V light,” he said while showing us the handheld light.
As we headed to the beach with the ultraviolet light, a sign warned us about contamination.
Then as the sun set, we started digging.
"When we were trying to find a way to find this stuff and differentiate it from peat, we came across the idea that we could use ultraviolet light," Kirby explained, adding that the UV light reveals oil the human eye can't see.
"This is what kids are going to do. They're going to dig with their hands right? Turn on this and there you go," he said while flipping on the UV light. "It has this peculiar orange fluorescent signature."
We dug a little more.
"See when I dig down in here. There's the orange sand, right there. That's what I'm looking for," said Kirby.
Under the UV light, it's easy to see bright orange sand and tar balls.
"That's a huge tar ball right there in your hand,” he said as I held the orange material in my gloved hand.
Kirby told me he wouldn't let his grandchildren play here. He also said they're conducting toxicology tests as part of a USF study.
A federal report including Fort Pickens preserve said "short-term and long-term exposures would not result in unacceptable health risks."
Back at Pensacola Beach, crews still scour the shoreline every day for tar balls, tar mats and other oil contamination. The day we visited, they removed more than 300 pounds of spill-related material from Escambia County beaches.
One-year after the oil spill, scientists say the beaches are clean.
But clean doesn't mean oil-free.
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