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Oil on our shores.  This headline is dominating the news on the Gulf Coast, but what does it mean?  In the Pensacola area, it means tar balls.  In Louisiana, it means both the balls and the slick.  Understanding the news reports is critical to interpretation.

We’ve been in Pensacola for over two days now, and we’ve seen the oil in the form of tar balls strung along the Pensacola-area beaches.  We have not seen the slick. To see the slick, we drove over to Alabama.  After driving from Perdido Key through to Gulf Shores, we found the slick trapped in a small inlet that separates the Gulf from a large lagoon.

The NOAA map showed oil making landfall around the area from Orange Beach westwards to Gulf Shores.  We drove along the corridor that is shared by Florida and Alabama and upon which stand condominiums so aggressively ambitious that they seem hostile to the shoreline around them.  Every so often, the row of condos is broken by a small patches of state beach.  We stopped at one where we noticed a television truck and a large number of clean-up workers who were eating a free lunch under a sheltering pavilion.  We paid an admission fee so that we could walk onto the beach, where, as in Florida, people were enjoying the beach as if there were nothing more remarkable about the day than a heat advisory so early in the summer.  At water’s edge, we saw the tell-tale strand of small tar balls.  People sat on lay on towels mere inches from the balls and children sat on the balls, playing with beach toys.  The area around the string of balls is stained tobacco-colored and is easy enough to spot, and yet the beachgoers seemed oblivious.  As we observed this, Mr. B. and I came to different conclusions.  I thought that the beachgoers didn’t know what they were seeing; perhaps, given media reports, they expect the tar balls to be the size of baseballs and do not recognize that they are disporting themselves in their midst.  Mr. B. had another take.  He felt it was a case of “life goes on.” Later, he would change his mind.

Our original destination was Fort Morgan, but we were on the wrong road.  State Road 182 (West Beach Blvd.) dead-ended in a private residential complex, so we had to turn around.  A few blocks later, we crossed over a short bridge that spanned a small inlet.  I looked down.  The inlet was filled with the oil slick.

After we crossed the bridge, we noticed a staging area for the clean-up on the left side of the road that was flying two red flags, not the single red flag we had seen up and down the beach.  This signal alerted us that something out of the ordinary (ordinary being a relative word here) was up. The area was being guarded by the local police, and it contained construction equipment, an ambulance, a couple of school buses, and various other vehicles.  There was a large pile of sand to the rear of the area.  We noticed orange boom in the water and then we saw that the workers had constructed a sand dam just beyond the boom.  It seemed obvious that the intent was to prevent the oil from entering the lagoon, and it appeared to have succeeded.

We continued along and went to Fort Morgan, but later in the afternoon we returned to the inlet.  This time, we parked on the opposite side of the bridge and crawled underneath so that we could get photos of the slick.  The slick was full of tar balls and seaweed.  At the beach end of the inlet, a uniformed policeman watched us take photographs.

Neither Mr. B. nor I have much of a science background, yet we both concluded the same thing.  I invite reader comments, so please correct me if I am off-base.  I am going to say something that might be controversial, based on our observations.  Mr. B. and I feel very strongly that the truth is not being told.  The waters of the Gulf look clean, clean enough to let your children swim in it without worry.  Oil? What oil?

Yet, the sludge in the inlet proves that the oil slick, as well as the tar balls, is on the Gulf Shores beaches.  It is coming in on the high tide and then it is going out again.  The tar balls are one thing; they are deposited on the sand.  But the slick is moving in and out even though the water looks sparkling clean. It is our supposition that the Gulf shore water is full of oil and that the public has no business swimming in it or sitting on its adjacent sands.  I offer the pictures here as evidence.  The tide brought the slick in and trapped it.  Had the workers not built the dams, the slick would have flowed into the lagoon and it would have dispersed.  It would have been impossible for the slick to enter the tiny mouth of the inlet unless it were widespread in that area; in other words, it wasn’t solely funneled into the inlet and not all the oil slick near the coastline around Gulf Shores  happened to flow into this one small space.

The Gulf is not clean.  The entire coastline is a health risk.  Don’t fish there, don’t swim there, and don’t let your kids play patty-cake in the sand there.

Update:  The health advisories are starting to come in.  A bit later than I’d have liked, based on what I saw in the past few days, but better than nothing.