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Tar balls wash up in Long Beach, Lido

DEC says it's looking into source of petroleum deposits after beach cleanup

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As the state Department of Environmental Conservation began removing tar balls that were discovered by residents along the shoreline in Lido Beach and Long Beach last weekend, State Sen. Todd Kaminsky called on the agency to open an investigation to identify the source of the sludge.

Two residents of Lido and Long Beach said they have seen petroleum deposits, or congealed black, blob-like shapes that local environmentalists say are typically associated with oil spills. Lido Dunes resident Carol Barrow said she saw thousands of tar balls while walking on the beach last Sunday.

“I was walking on the beach in Long Beach towards Lido Beach,” Barrow told the Herald on Wednesday, reading a letter that she sent to Kaminsky and County Legislator Denise Ford. “I kept seeing black, ovoid shapes intermingled with shells, but thought that they were pieces of asphalt that had been polished by the waves. Then it occurred to me that there were more than a few of these polished-rock looking solids. I took a closer look. They aren’t asphalt ovoids. They are soft. They are actually what we used to call tar balls.”

“We deserve to know when mishaps, not only full-blown ecological disasters, occur,” she added.

In a letter to the DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, called on the agency to open a formal investigation and test the “black, tar-like substances” that were discovered over a more than three-mile stretch, from Matlock Street in Lido Beach to Lafayette Boulevard in Long Beach.

“As the DEC is currently cleaning up the debris, I request that such debris be tested in order to ensure proper cleanup and prevent future contamination,” Kaminsky wrote. “Residents are extremely concerned about the possibility of a petroleum spill.”

In a statement, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen said town workers have been “working collaboratively with state officials during the cleanup and will be performing a clean sweep of our local beaches to ensure that all deposited waste was properly collected and nothing else is washing ashore.”

The DEC said it had completed the cleanup on Wednesday, which included a mix of tar balls and peat deposits, which look similar. Approximately a ton of both materials, the agency said, were collected over the two-day cleanup.

“The DEC thoroughly inspected the site after receiving reports of tar balls in the area,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “The DEC and a contractor completed the cleanup of the tar balls and peat balls this morning to address this pollution. The tar balls will be submitted for sampling prior to disposal at an approved facility.”

The DEC said that it was looking into the source of the tar balls with the U.S. Coast Guard — a “heavier” impact was found near Lincoln Boulevard beach — but had not received reports of any oil spills in the area. Tar balls, the DEC said, occasionally wash up in small quantities and “are usually picked up by beach maintenance crews when they rake up sea weed and other debris.” They are most often the result of shipwrecks or oil spills in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Tar balls are not regularly reported on Long Island but are found occasionally,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “In this case, the tar balls are old and dried out, indicating they are remnants from an old — perhaps very old — spill.”

City officials, meanwhile, said there was no cause for alarm, saying that only some tar balls had been found among what were described as clay and peat deposits, which are common.

“When the DEC came out, a lot of them were peat and clay, but some were tar balls and they decided to clean them all up,” said Public Works Commissioner John Mirando, adding that “very few” tar balls were discovered. “Our beach people have not found tar balls — everything they’ve been finding has been clay or peat. The ones we’ve been cleaning all year are peat or clay and natural deposits that exist in the ocean.”

Lifelong Long Beach resident Marvin Weiss, a surfer and vice chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Central Long Island Chapter, said that he and others began noticing gray clay deposits wash up on the beach last year — coinciding with the offshore dredging of sand as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ coastal protection project — but that the substances turned black a few months ago. He said he and others have noticed the objects on all beaches in the city since the dredging began, and on Lincoln and Franklin boulevard beaches as recently as Wednesday.

“We were told that they were clay deposits,” Weiss said, adding that tar balls have not been seen in Long Beach since the early 1980s. “Over the past couple of months, what I noticed is that the gray turned to black … and the black would stay on my fingers, an oily-like substance. There are still gray clay balls on the beach, but some of them have shown up black lately. There are pieces out there that are the size of a basketball, others like the shape of a golf ball — they look like stones on the beach.”

Did the Army Corps “dig too deep? Is this old sediment from the days that we did have oil spills in the late 1970s and early ’80s?” Weiss asked. “Back then, there were tar balls on the beach, but this was cleaned up over the years, and the beaches have been great. Maybe with the dredging, should we take a look and see how deep they’re dredging?”

Earlier this month, the Herald reported that the dune and sand replenishment work in Long Beach had been paused because of rough weather and damaged equipment, and is set to resume in March, according to Army Corps officials, who said that the offshore dredge had been moved.

Officials of both Army Corps and DEC said that the tar balls were not a result of the recent Army Corps work.

“We don’t have any equipment working in the area,” Army Corps spokesman Michael Embrich said.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, told the Herald that it was unlikely that the tar balls were related to the Army Corps work.

“Dredging occurs all across Long Island for different reasons,” Esposito said, “and we don’t see this happening as a result of dredging on a routine basis. This could be something from a minor leak from a tanker that was heading to the New York City port. It could be from an illegal discharge that occurred out in the ocean.”

Esposito said Wednesday that the DEC informed her group that the tar balls were, in fact, petroleum deposits. “The DEC is handling it as if it’s tar and oil,” she said. “If it was a one-time event, and it’s been cleaned up, we should be OK. However, we’re concerned that more may wash up. It’s a great unknown.” To report a tar ball or oil spill, call the DEC at (800) 457-7362.