We walk on the sands of Pensacola Beach tonight. We’ve strolled here before, in the past, but it’s different now. Really different. The sky has turned from lavender to purple to black, and what we see comes straight from a science fiction movie. Our darkest imaginings of some mishandled future have sprung to life. For stretches longer than football fields, dozens of white-skinned, red-eyed aliens plod like zombies across the beach where the water meets the sand.
And then we see: the white-skinned aliens are really hazmat-clad humans wearing single infrared lights affixed to their heads. They shuffle and bend in teams of two, one holding a plastic bag while the other digs at black gelatinous blobs in the white sand. They wear white masks, and the waxing moon lists in the sky. Suddenly understanding that the beings are human is no less frightening.
We’ve come to this Florida Panhandle beach, one of the latest victims of the BP oil disaster, with a local politician, a number of Waterkeeper Alliance representatives, and a local journalist. We’re here to meet a geologist, Rip Kirby of the University of South Florida, a man who brings a particular tool crucial to a better understanding of the oil’s impact: ultraviolet light. Oil illuminates an eerie orange under the light while water and sand remain neutral.
The local journalist likes to talk, and he seems relatively excited by the presence of other press, if not by the disaster that has gathered us on his shores. He yabbers as we walk across the sand to meet Kirby. In the dark, we can quickly spot him. A blue, cone-shaped glow appears on the night beach in the distance amongst all the red eyes, and we beeline for it.
What we discover shuts up the local journalist for good. It’s clear that his hometown shore is now afflicted with a scarring disease that isn’t going away any time soon. Throughout the day and into the night, workers scoured the beach for telltale blobs and dark patches, scooping and raking, but here under this ultraviolet scrutiny, we can see that, especially along the waterline, the oil has covered huge swaths of the beach in a sort of splattered blanket. We move to a section where the surface appears white and either successfully cleaned or as of yet unaffected. The geologist tells us to dig into this sand, and when we do, it’s hard not to cry. At a depth of 15 cm, the telltale orange glow of oil permeates the sand in bright twisting ribbons.
This oil only arrived yesterday. The saturation is the result of merely a few tides.
Not surprisingly, to be able to visit this science fiction beach proved to be an outright struggle. The U.S. Coast Guard, acting under the authority of BP, had a few days earlier instituted a 20-m boundary around all of its workers and oil-cleaning efforts, both on land and in the water. If the curious are caught disobeying the new edict, they stand to be slapped with arrest, a felony charge, jail time and a fine of US$40,000. Other sites were inaccessible to media altogether without a pass issued by an entirely illusive head honcho. After waiting for one such pass for hours to visit Elmer’s Island, we were turned away by a man guarding the beach we’d hoped to investigate. Evidently the pass we’d just procured had expired. Or changed. It wasn’t the right one despite it being issued by the head honcho within the past hour.
While BP has instituted its boundaries under the guise of protecting the safety of the workers as well as that of the media, its regulations surely attempt only to lessen the exposure of its missteps. BP’s Kafkaesque games have grown ever more evident, just as its cleanup efforts have proven ineffective. Keeping photographers and journalists away from the real dirt has always been one of the goals of polluters. BP proves no different.
Fortunately, over the course of our days in the Gulf, we succeed in skirting the newly strung, literal yellow tape on numerous occasions by keeping company with those allowed to bypass it. Each time we come into contact with dozens of workers cleaning or placing boom. And over and over we are told the same thing when we ask their opinion: “I’m not allowed to talk to you.”