Mississippi barrier islands still recovering from spill

SHIP ISLAND, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi's barrier islands were among the areas most damaged by oil washing ashore from the BP disaster one year ago.

The subsequent clean-up operation on the islands has removed nearly four million pounds of tar balls and oil patties. Much of that work was scaled-back last month so clean-up crews don't disturb nesting birds on the barrier islands.

"People are ready to get out. Spring fever is here and they want to get back out to the islands," said Louis Skrmetta, whose family owns Ship Island Excursions.

"The beaches look great, the water is beautiful. The good news is the island is pretty much clean, at least here at West Ship Island," said the ferry boat owner.

As visitors enjoy the sun and surf on Ship Island, a small clean-up crew raked and sifted through the sand.

With the number of workers scaled back because of bird nesting season, the focus is on the most popular areas for island visitors.

"I'm glad to see them out here, because you do have signs of tar balls still in the high dune lines. And we want to make sure the tourists, when they come out here, they don't experience anything having to do with oil," said Skrmetta.

Julia Swanson makes sure clean-up crews stay away from wildlife and sensitive dune vegetation.

"We don't want to have a negative impact on the beach or any part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore more than what the spill has already caused," said Swanson, who works as a National Parks resource officer.

Skrmetta worries about long term impact.  Another big concern is the upcoming hurricane season.

"I'm still worried that come hurricane season or the next tropical storm that we may have a whole new batch of oil on the beaches. The huge amount of oil that was dumped. I mean 200 million gallons of oil just 70 miles south of Ship Island, you have to wonder. It's down in that deep water. And the next hurricane, the next hurricane could pull it up and bring it ashore on the islands. That's the question, I guess," he said, looking out over the rolling surf along the south shore of the island.

Hundreds of clean-up workers have scoured the sands of Horn Island since the spill. The effort has included picking up tar balls by hand and using specialty beach equipment to sift through the sand.

"We feel good about where the barrier islands are. I think if you go out there and look at them, in most cases if you didn't know what you're looking for, I don't know that you'd really think that there was any damage out there," said BP spokesman Ray Melick, in a recent interview.

Additional clean-up crews will return to Horn Island later this summer, once nesting season has passed.

Louis Skrmetta said he's looking forward to a busy summer taking visitors to Ship Island. Last year, his business was down some 60 percent due to the oil spill. He received a welcome boost when a BP contractor hired his company to ferry clean-up workers to the island for several months.

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