What are tar balls? More on substance found at local beaches after oil spill

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SAN DIEGO — Reports of tar balls on San Diego’s coast are the first potential sign that an oil spill in Orange County has made its way to our front door. Here’s what you need to know about the sticky substances found this week.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife defines tar balls as “small, dark-colored, often sticky-to-the-touch remnants of oil spills or natural oil seeps.”

While that means the tar balls found in San Diego this week could be naturally occurring, County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher called the ones spotted in Carlsbad, Oceanside, Del Mar and Encinitas “highly unusual” in quantity and “highly likely” to be linked by further testing to the broken Amplify Energy pipeline near Orange County.

After a spill, officials say a thin slick of oil first forms on the water. That strip of crude begins to break into smaller patches as wind and waves scatter the oil across a wider area. As the elements continue to “stretch and break the oil patches into smaller pieces, formation of tarballs and/or tar patties occurs,” the DFW explains.

A photo shared by the city of Carlsbad shows tar balls found on the sand there in October 2021, following an oil spill in Orange County. (Photo: City of Carlsbad)

Tar balls range in size, but generally are less than 10 centimeters in diameter (or roughly coin-sized). They are often hard and crusty on the outside, but gooey on the inside, “like a toasted marshmallow,” experts say.

Cleanup efforts on beaches where there are a significant number of tar balls usually involve emergency workers scooping up the balls by hand or using cleaning machinery.

“Although crude or processed oil can be carcinogenic and contact should be avoided, occasional brief contact is unlikely to cause significant or lasting health concerns for most people,” San Diego County said in a statement after this week’s discoveries.

With that being said, officials urge residents not to try to clean up the oil themselves.

“Oil contains hazardous chemicals, and the public is reminded to avoid contact with the tarballs. If contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water, baby oil, or a widely used, safe cleaning. Avoid using solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, or similar products on the skin. These products, when applied to skin, present a greater health hazard than the tarball itself,” the state says.

“The hazardous risks associated with human exposure to tar balls are also true for biological resources. Wildlife may pick tar balls up on their feathers or fur, which may result in a loss of waterproofing and life threatening exposure to cold. Also, in trying to clean the tar balls off, wildlife may ingest the hazardous materials.”

As much as it might hurt not to help, beachgoers shouldn’t directly intervene if they spot an animal affected by an oil spill. Experts have developed strict safety measures that keep rescuers safe but also may actually improve the chances that the animal is not further harmed.

People should immediately notify lifeguards or call 1-877-823-6926 to reach emergency workers. You can keep up to date on the Southern California oil spill and learn more about spills in general on the Southern California Spill Response website.

Chair Fletcher said Thursday that local beaches were not being closed as of late Thursday afternoon, and that closures did not appear to be immediately impending. “We’re not at that point today, even if the tar balls are traced back to the spill,” he said, responding to a question from a reporter.

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