GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) — Heavy surf churned up by Tropical Storm Lee sent tar balls rolling onto Alabama's prime tourist beaches, and officials said Tuesday that they plan to test the black and brown globs to find out if they're related to last year's oil spill.
Brandon Franklin, the coastal plans manager for the city of Gulf Shores, said officials are collecting samples that will be sent to Auburn University for testing.
The exact origin of the tar balls is still unclear, and BP isn't taking responsibility for the tar balls just yet. It has sent survey teams to conduct post-storm assessments along coastal beaches to determine what may have developed on the beaches and barrier islands as a result of Lee. The oil giant is prepared to mobilize response crews to affected areas if necessary, spokesman Tom Mueller said.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said most of the tar balls there were very small. The tar balls visible at Gulf Shores ranged from the size of a marble to nearly the size of a baseball.
Connie Harris of Alabaster, Ala., had stayed at a condominium in Gulf Shores over the Labor Day weekend with three friends. When she returned from a beach walk, she had to scrub her feet with soap and a wash cloth, she said.
"When we walked on the beach, we had tar on our feet," Harris said.
Grant Brown, a spokesman for the city of Gulf Shores, said he had been told the situation wasn't as bad as last year, when oil fouled beaches all along the Gulf Coast because of the BP oil spill. But it was significant, he said.
"It confirms our fear that there are tar mats just offshore and that we may have more tar coming in whenever there's a storm," he said.
Elsewhere, the remnants of Lee have knocked out power to thousands, churned up rough ocean surf and drenched areas with rain that left some rivers and creeks topping their banks. At least four people have died because of the storm, including a swimmer who went missing off the Alabama coast.
Associated Press writer Harry Weber contributed to this report from Atlanta.