Long Beach tar balls facts

June 17, 2015

On May 3rd, tar balls started washing up on a four-mile stretch of coast in Long Beach, Ca. For many southland residents, this was an alarming turn of events and certainly an eyesore that blighted California’s famously pristine shores. But just two days later the beaches were reopened and everything was back to normal—at least on the surface.

Doubts about the provenance of the tar balls linger, as does the question of how safe California’s coastline truly is from pollution. Here’s everything you need to know about the Long Beach contamination.

How the tar balls formed

When an oil spill occurs, the crude floats on the surface of the ocean and moves with the current. Environmental factors such as waves cause the oil to change its composition (a process known as “weathering”) and take the form of viscous balls. It’s true there are natural oil seeps on the coastline that could have released the substance, but it would be unprecedented considering the sheer number of tar balls that washed up on the beaches.

The damage was extensive

When viewed through the prism of a 24-hour news cycle, the closing of a beach for two days doesn’t warrant much attention. However, the petroleum-based tar that washed on shore didn’t clean itself up. It took crews from the Long Beach Fire Department’s Marine Safety Division working around the clock to remove some 55 gallons of sludge that was found on the beaches. Perhaps the most unsettling fallout came in the form of the 115 birds, 46 sea lions and 12 dolphins that were killed due to the pollution.

The Santa Barbara connection

The Coast Guard collected samples of the tar to determine its origin. While the results were not immediately available, many folks are pointing to the May 19 oil spill off Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara. The ruptured pipeline sent 100,000 gallons of crude into the ocean, and, tides being what they are, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the coagulated refuse winding up in Long Beach. If Santa Barbara is indeed the culprit, it represents just one of many corroded crude oil pipelines in the U.S. that have ruptured, leading to spills that devastated wildlife in the surrounding areas. Perhaps this is why California Attorney General Kamala Harris isn’t ruling out criminal charges.

One silver lining in the gooey cloud is that beachgoers have become more vigilant since the tar balls began washing up on shore. Whether it’s waste from the ocean floor or from a busted pipe, concerned citizens taking the time to pay attention to the cleanliness of their shoreline is always a good thing.


Feature image courtesy of TRB Img

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