Gulf Coast Surfers Are Suffering, Too — And Health Risks Are Unclear - Shelby Stanger
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Gulf Coast Surfers Are Suffering, Too — And Health Risks Are Unclear

While the Gulf Coast isn’t known as a surf destination, surfers who live there are diehard–and after years of suffering anemic waves, now they’re being forced to choose between their health and their lifestyle. It’s been more than 100 days since the oil spill, and with the promise of juicy swells spawned by La Niña-fueled hurricanes, many Gulf coast surfers are facing the dilemma of surfing the best early season waves they’ve seen in years or risking health consequences that not even experts can predict.

Hurricane Alex, which hit June 30, brought the first bout of solid head-high waves earlier this summer, a time when the Gulf Coast is traditionally flat. The Category 2 hurricane, which landed 566 miles southwest of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead site, scattered oil and tar balls across the beaches of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

Guys like professional surfer Shea Lopez, who normally would have driven six hours to Pensacola, Florida, stayed home.

“Alex brought a perfect swell. My friends who live out there said they were watching rainbows in the waves, and those aren’t the kind of rainbows I want to see,” he said, referring to oil in the water.

Gulf Coast surfers like Lopez thrive off hurricane swells that usually run through the fall, and forecasters say this year may be better than ever.

According to wave forecaster Adam Wright, scientists are seeing La Niña patterns, where the water in the Atlantic and Gulf is warmer than usual, causing more probability for storms to form and intensify. Stronger and bigger storms often yield bigger waves. “It’s like pouring gasoline into a fire,” said Wright.

When Alex hit, it was day 72 of the cleanup. Between 71.2 million and 139 million gallons of oil had gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from the leak caused by the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon. Approximately 413 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline were oiled — approximately 59 miles in Florida, 259 miles in Louisiana, 48 miles in Mississippi and 47 miles in Alabama. About 1.6 million gallons of total dispersant had been applied: 1.03 million on the surface and 552,000 subsea.

For surfers in areas like Gulf Shores, Alabama, which had been soiled by oil earlier on June 12th, southeast winds from the storm pushed a lot of visible oil away, allowing them to surf places like Alabama Point during Hurricane Alex.

“It’s in the back of your mind,” said Johnny Mcelroy, owner of Blonde John’s Surf Shop, about the oil after surfing the Point in late June. “But it’s like dealing with sharks. You know they are there, but you gotta’ surf — it’s a way of life.”

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In total, about 200 million gallons of oil have been spilled into the Gulf from the explosion. On July 15, a cap stopped the well from gushing the crude into the ocean. Currently there are only sightings of tar balls and emulsified oil in some spots, but the large patches and sheens of surface oil have mostly dissipated.

Less oil on the surface, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t oil beneath the surface or in the sand and marshes. Many scientists and environmentalists speculate the cleanup process will still take years and it is unknown what the short- and long-term affects will have on the Gulf ecosystem.

“You can’t see the oil anymore, but you can taste it,” said Mcelroy, who surfed again last week and whose surf shop is down over 70% in business from last year since tourism in Alabama is almost nonexistent.

“When I got out of the water the other day, my arm hair was matted down and there was oil on my feet when I walked back to my car. Just because it’s dispersed, doesn’t mean there’s not a huge line of uncertainty,” he added.

Reports of eye irritations, nausea, and rashes are increasingly common from swimming and surfing in affected areas of the Gulf, according to Matt McClain, marketing director for the Surfrider Foundation. McClain, like many environmentalists, is not only concerned with oil, but with effects that dispersants, chemicals that break up the oil, can have on human health.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention says brief contact with small amounts of light crude oil and dispersants are not harmful. Swallowing small amounts of oil can cause upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. Long-term exposure to dispersants, however, can cause central nervous system problems, or do damage to blood, kidneys, or liver.

Some argue that BP used a dispersant for PR reasons so the public wouldn’t see as much oil, and others argue the dispersants are helping keep oil from hitting shoreline and affecting marsh lands.

It is unknown exactly what the recipe is for the dispersant BP is currently using, but reports show they are mainly using a substance called Corexit 9500, made with ingredients also found in laxatives and cosmetic products. According to a report by the EPA, the dispersant is not “without toxicity,” and the ecological effect of mixing the dispersants with oil is still unknown.

Dr. Richard Snyder, who heads the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation at the University of West Florida, has been sampling the water at Pensacola Beach since May 3. He said oil and dispersants are more toxic when put together. The combination of the two causes for greater exposure to both oil and the dispersant chemicals because the oil is dissolved in water.

“Oil alone will float on the water and not affect fish or people swimming below it. But add dispersant to the oil and it becomes dissolved in the water. Mix it and you have a greater chance of coming into contact with both substances,” he said.

With so many unknowns, many people are looking back to the Exxon Valdez spill, the last major oil spill in the United States, where 32 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Medical records were not recorded in detail from the spill, but CNN reported the average life expectancy for a cleanup worker to be 51 years old.

Currently, Dr. Snyder’s reports show that there’s not a lot of oil off Pensacola. “It’ll be in the sand for a while, but deeming it safe to swim or surf in is a matter of personal risk tolerance,” he added.

With storms expected to continue throughout hurricane season into fall, surfers in the Gulf will have to make decisions on a day-by-day basis. A few months ago, when oil first washed up in Florida and Alabama, many surfers threatened to move and others started traveling to places in Texas and even to Costa Rica and California to find cleaner water.

Just last weekend, Hurricane Bonnie drummed up surf high enough for guys to paddle out, though the lineup was sparse. “There’s almost no kids going out,” said Mcelroy. “No parents are going to subject their kids to that. But for me, I am 30 years old and I can make my own decisions. If there’s surf, I’m goin’ out there.”

While the Gulf Coast isn’t known as a surf destination, surfers who live there are diehard–and after years of suffering anemic waves, now they’re being forced to choose between their health and their lifestyle. It’s been more than 100 days since the oil spill, and with the promise of juicy swells spawned by La Niña-fueled hurricanes, many Gulf coast surfers are facing the dilemma of surfing the best early season waves they’ve seen in years or risking health consequences that not even experts can predict.