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Tar balls wash up on San Diego shores

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This weekend beach goers were surprised to find little black patches of tar scattered on two beaches in North County. The debris was identified as tar ranging from nickle-sized to 4 inches wide and appear like flat tar patties. The tar washed up on the popular area, Moonlight Beach in Encinitas and on Oceanside’s Buccaneer Beach.

The Coast Guard had the waste tested by pollution investigators to determine whether the tar was from a man-made source or possibly just natural ocean floor seepage. The origin of the debris is still not known, but the results should be released in the next two weeks.

Petty Officer Justin Pryor at the San Diego Coast Guard said the leading contender is natural causes because Coronado had a similar problem in April 2009.

Small amounts of tar are not dangerous to public health; however, Pryor insisted beach goers avoid contact with the tar balls.

“We had quite a few tar balls wash up on the beach near Scripps Institution of Oceanography … about six weeks ago,” said Jim Means, a graduate student at the campus, which is part of the University of California San Diego. “There was enough of it so that it was difficult to avoid while walking. I bought some special detergent just to remove the tar from my feet and sandals. After a few days, it was gone from the beach.”

Tar deposits are not a normal occurrence on San Diego beaches, but they have been seen in the Santa Barbara area where Miocene-era rock formations are commonly found. Geologist Dr. Pat Abbott said the earthquakes the San Diego region has experienced recently may have affected the oceans geology, causing oil to leak out.

“There’s oil naturally occurring on the ocean floor and it could come up through certain vents and what not during certain times of the year,” explains Justin Bryor of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Beach goers have said the tar smells like charcoal and oil. It is very sticky and can be hard to remove from beach towels, shoes, hands and feet.

After tar balls were found on Coronado last year,  an emergency crew was sent to clean up the beaches. They filled a 55-gallon drum full of the waste. A similar clean-up has not been conducted yet.

Photo from Stickpen via Wikimedia

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