Tar Balls: What Happened to Them?

Many of my friends have childhood memories of stepping on black, squishy blobs of tar on beaches. Mary Ellen said “Oh Man! There were containers of turpentine and paper towels at every beach so you could get the stuff off your feet.” Marlis remembers not paying attention, despite her parents’ warnings. Then angry parents would rub and rub, trying to get the tar off. Vic remembers days of heavy tar and days with none, kind of like washed up plastic today. Young folks have no memories of tar balls because they had quietly disappeared around the 1980’s. What happened to them?

There are three different sources of tar balls. They come from natural seeps. In areas with offshore oil, like California (see photo above) coming back from the beach with feet covered in tar is still very possible. Some are the result of oil spills. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 covered Gulf of Mexico beaches with the soft, sticky clumps of weathered oil. The tar on my feet were formed when oily water was discharged from ships. This source has been mostly eliminated thanks to MARPOL.

MARPOL (think marine pollution) is a marine environmental convention written in 1973, modified in 1978, agreed to by 154 countries and put into effect in 1983. It led to big improvements in ship design, and new technologies and practices to prevent discharging oil overboard. Before MARPOL, oil tankers would offload oil in ports and then pressure wash cargo tank walls with hot seawater to remove the sticky crude that clung to them. The resulting oily water, or “slops” was discharged overboard. Today the insides of oil compartments are pressure washed with heated oil. The oil that was stuck on tank walls as well as the oil used to clean it off is pumped out of the tanks and sold rather than discharged into the ocean.

MARPOL changed much more than that. Oil tankers used to pump seawater into cargo tanks for ballast on return trips. Without cargo or ballast water, tankers float like corks. The weight of water makes the tankers more stable and seaworthy. In the past, this oily ballast water was discharged into the ocean at the end of the trip. Today there are separate tanks for seawater ballast and for oil cargo so the oil and water don’t mix. Oily waste from ship engines and fuel systems that leaked into bilge water used to be pumped overboard. Now ships have oily water separators, oil content meters, facilities at ports to dispose of oil-contaminated water and oil discharge monitoring equipment. Engineers on board must keep track of oily waste and record it in an oil record book.

Of course, it is still cumbersome and expensive to separate and treat oily waste from ships. The Caribbean Princess cruise ship used a “magic pipe” instead. A magic pipe, which makes oily waste disappear by pumping it directly overboard rather than treating it or disposing of it in port, is neither magical nor legal. The cruise line was fined $40 million in December, 2016. That’s big incentive for companies to do the right thing, even if it’s not as easy.

People in most places have forgotten about tar balls because we no longer carry around reminders on the bottom of our feet. Today we despair over plastic waste that litters our beaches and oceans. We solved the tar ball problem, so it’s quite reasonable to think we can solve our plastic problem too. Eliminating plastic waste is going to be harder; there were only so many ships discharging oily waste into the sea, the sources of plastic waste seem infinite. And while many of the solutions to plastic pollution are global, there is still plenty that we can do locally. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. And next time you’re at the beach, grab a bag from the BlueTube, pick up trash and throw it away. Reuse your extra plastic bags, put them in a BlueTube, and others will help rid the beach of plastic too.