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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Says Gulf Beaches ‘Clean.’ Really?

In his May 27 press conference on the oil spill, President Barack Obama declared Gulf Coast beaches safe and encouraged Americans to visit them. “Except for three beaches in Louisiana, all of the Gulf’s beaches are open, they are safe and they are clean,” he said. But it depends on your definition of “safe” and “clean,” and you had better hurry up, because the coast states are bracing for more closures.

  • Alabama hasn’t closed any beaches, but the state’s Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau said as of May 27 it has had two incidents of tar balls washing up on beaches between Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. On its website, the tourism bureau says: “To date, only a few dozen tar balls have been reported along our 32 miles of beachfront and contracted crews immediately cleaned the affected areas.”
  • The National Park Service reported on May 26 that its staff “continues to find some tar balls and receive reports of oiled wildlife on beaches in Gulf Island National Seashore” – an area that spans Florida and Mississippi.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is tracking the direction and potential impact of the oil spill, forecasts that in 72 hours the oil could threaten the shoreline of “Mississippi Delta west to Timbalier Bay, Breton Sound and the Chandeleur Islands.”
  • The Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, the joint federal agency coordinating the administration’s response to the spill, has prepared 17 staging areas to protect the Gulf’s “sensitive shorelines,” including Dauphin Island, Ala.; Orange Beach, Ala.; Theodore, Ala.; Panama City, Fla.; Pensacola, Fla.; Port St. Joe, Fla.; St. Marks, Fla.; Amelia, La.; Cocodrie, La.; Grand Isle, La.; Shell Beach, La.; Slidell, La.; St. Mary, La.; Venice, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; Pascagoula, Miss.; and Pass Christian, Miss.

NOAA says an "occasional brief contact" with tar balls "will do no harm" for most people, but it doesn’t recommend it. 

NOAA: For most people, an occasional brief contact with a small amount of oil, while not recommended, will do no harm. However, some people are especially sensitive to chemicals, including the hydrocarbons found in crude oil and petroleum products. They may have an allergic reaction or develop rashes even from brief contact with oil. In general, we recommend that contact with oil be avoided.

David Willett, a spokesman for Sierra Club, said the president’s statement about the Gulf Coast beaches is “accurate for this very moment.” But, he added, the “problem is that six hours or a day or a week from now could be a very different situation.”

Willett called Obama’s observations a “temporal assessment.”

– by Melissa Siegel and Eugene Kiely