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A 200-year plan for restoring Lousiana’s coastal wetlands

The Mississippi River in flood during the Spring of 2011. The river, some 30-miles below New Orleans, is running at 24 knots and streatches from the levee I am standing on to the horizon.

  The following comments were prepared for submission to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force that is holding a series of hearings at coastal cities during the Summer of 2011. This organization has the  mandate to produce its report by October 1, 2011. I submitted  this document for the Galveston hearing which takes place on June 27 – the third of  the four hearings. I hope to attend the final public hearing in Biloxi on August 29.

 I have advocated a long-term solution to a long-term and very complex problem. But, I am one guy without an organization or funding to do anything about it, other than long-distance correspondence. I need to raise about $3,000 to get me to Biloxi as well as to a more scientific forum that will be held in Corpus Christy after the Gulf Coast Task Force has released its report. If you believe that I have the correct approach and want to help finance this effort, please contact me via E-mail to, or leave a comment.

Public Comment

Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force


June, 2011



Designing a 200-year Plan for Louisiana Wetlands

Restoration and Management


  Although all of the nation’s coastal wetlands are important, those associated with Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta are nationally significant because of their size, economic contribution, impact on transportation, wildlife resources, seafood production and as a protection for New Orleans and other up-river communities.

  This is a large geographic area that is subjected to adverse natural and man-made events that have occurred in the recent past and can be anticipated in the future. Some, such as the present record floods in the Mississippi River system have been managed to the extent that the major cities along the River have been protected, and the levee system has kept some of the lower parishes dry, although large areas of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys have been allowed to flood to reduce the danger to New Orleans and other cities.

  These Spring floods were a record event which resulted in wide-spread flooding of pre-designated areas. This event is remarkable in that adequate time was allowed for evacuation and few, if any, lives were lost. The system of engineered structures and levees held, and the Corps of Engineers’ efforts can be considered successful. There were loses of crops and homes, but these were unavoidable consequences of living on and farming the very rich soils of  the Mississippi Valley.

  Such things happen from time to time. The question is how to manage these events while minimizing losses to life and property while simultaneously fostering the ecological recovery and restoration of vital coastal wetlands?

   The options of doing nothing, restoring the Louisiana wetlands to the exact state they were at any time in the past or permitting unrestricted development are all impossible outcomes. Stabilizing and rebuilding the Mississippi Delta will require compromises and concessions to the ecological, economic, cultural, energy and transportation interests as well as continuing efforts though storm events, periodic failures and reversals. This can never be a build-it-and-leave-it response because of the dynamic nature of this huge natural system.

  Seen in the long view of geologic time, the present coastal islands, waterways and marshes are but recent modifications of the last catastrophic event. Restoring the delta will be a continuing process of progressive, successive approximations which are somewhat predictable in their general result, but are subjected to too many variables to expect long-lived outcomes without continuous interventions. Practical examples are the needs for constant dredging to keep shipping channels to useable depths, levee repair and replacements, etc.     

Part I.Organizational attributes

  In order to successfully restore Louisiana’s wetlands an optimum organization should have the following characteristics:

  A. Longevity. Restoration efforts are very long term projects, and such an organization should have a 200-year mandate.

  B. Science. Several organizations such as the National Wetlands Research Centerof the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the hydrology, geography and biology of Louisiana wetlands for more than a quarter-century. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers utilizes some of this information in their design programs.

  C. Stakeholder input. Because any decision to alter the present wetlands will have both negative and positive impacts, governmental groups from the state, parishes and towns should be involved along with NGOs to represent environmental and economic interests.

  D. Local management. This organization should have its resources and personnel close at hand and have its operational functions in Louisiana.

  E. Decision making authority. Because of the need to respond rapidly to take advantage of short-term conditions, or to respond to hurricanes and other disasters, this organization needs to have the authority to immediately act to implement pre-planned actions. These might include opening certain levees when river levels reach predetermined flow rates.

  F. Use existing natural system as a base for rebuilding the wetlands, but acknowledge that these are geologically transitory features that can never be “restored” in the strict meaning of the word.

  G. The abilities to call-in resources from other organizations in order to fulfill its mandate for wetlands restoration and respond to emergencies.

  H. Independent funding sources to continue centuries long, but “non-sexy,” engineering projects. Funding would most likely be derived from oil, gas, shipping, greenhouse gas capture and other potential revenue sources.       

  No existing organization has all of these attributes. In a previous statement I thought that perhaps the U.S. Geological Survey, if sufficiently augmented, might be most appropriate as they have on staff most of the scientific personnel to consider the geological, ecological, hydrological, geographical, environmental, economic and cultural impacts. Further research revealed that while the above is generally correct so far as personnel and activities are concerned, the U.S.G.S. does not have the engineering, management capabilities or congressional mandate to undertake a project of this magnitude, although they would be expected to make a continuing scientific contribution.

  Born when the nation was in the midst of a depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) appears to offer the best model for an organization that can have the above-listed attributes. Although this may not be politically possible at present, I firmly believe that a new TVA-like organization needs to be established with the mission of restoring Louisiana’s wetlands over the next 200 years.  

  Such an organization would have the following significant advantages over any existing organization or grouping of them.

  A. A central mission of wetlands restoration.

  B. Stable management that would not have to be re-trained every few years or replaced with each election.

  C. Independent sources of revenue.

  D. Have direct input from local governmental organizations, business interests and NGOs.

  E. Be equipped and capable of rapid response to emergencies according to pre-approved plans.

  F. Arrange for the continuing management of programs that will outlive anyone in the organization.

  G. Be able to make the tough decisions and trade-offs between competing interest for the best outcomes for wetlands restoration and the people whose livelihoods depend on this ecosystem and the natural resources on and under them.

About the author.

  Wm. Hovey Smith is a Professional Geologist (GA. no. 622) with degrees from the Universityof Georgia, Universityof Alaskaand with post-grad work at the universities of Arizonaand Arkansas. He has been a Army Engineer officer, newspaper writer, the author of 14 books, a radio producer-host, photographer, blogger, video producer, wild-game cook and playwright. His work is noted for being bold, inventive and wide-reaching in scope. Among his books are four of the first ever written on AIDS, popular works on local geology and architecture and more recently outdoor titles featuring hunting and bowfishing. His current radio show is “Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures” on For more information go to his website:

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Market reach: New markets may require different tools or products

  When considering how to expand an existing business outside of an established service area, it is often necessary to use new business tools, marketing or products. The use of the Internet’s potential to expand markets is something that almost any business can do. It may be that the most marketable  thing about your business is not hard products, but knowledge. If you can teach people how to make money, save money or improve their lives in this dismal economy you have something you can sell. 

 Products may have to be modified to appeal to a larger market or even produced on more efficient machinery.  Sometimes a redesign can result in an improved product that is actually less costly than the original, as many original designs are often overcomplicated to start with. However, there is a tendency in today’s market to “race to the bottom” so far as price is concerned, even at the cost of decrease service life and usefulness.  Such an approach will ultimately backfire, and the brand will lose sales as a consequence.

  Refinancing a company will often be necessary to enlarge production. The safest approach is to first use low-cost tools to establish demand, and then, after orders are received, it is easier to finance expansion. Again, the Internet is often the most efficient way to make this market test.

 Successfully establishing a presence in a larger market can have a stabilizing effect on a company because it is less vulnerable to local, unforeseeable, changes in markets, as when a community’s only  factory closes and sales plummet.  

  The following is one of 21 videos on starting your own outdoor-based business which is now available on YouTube. If you have trouble viewing it here, it may be seen on my YouTube channel, wmhoveysmith, at: .

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All you ever wanted to know about knives at the 2011 Atlanta Blade Show

Every knife that you ever wanted to have or know about will eventually surface at Atlanta's annual Blade Show.

  If you ever had even a casual interest in knives, a visit to the annual Blade Show, officially the  Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair, held in Atlanta each June by Blade Magazine is a “must do” event. Not only were there more than 900 exhibitors of knives and related products at the 2011 show, there were also seminars, demonstrations and instructions on how you can advance from a novice to a Master Bladesmith, an internationally recognized achievment awarded by the American Bladesmith Association.

This hirschfanger was made for Kaiser Wilheim II by H. Barella, the royal weapon maker, and taken from a castle by a GI at the close of World War I.

 Any year you can see, and be able to purchase, antique knives that are thousands of years old, historical blades that belonged to emperors and kings, the finest examples of knife making artistry from the past and present, fantasy knives from your wildest dreams or worst nightmares, working knives for any task and hob-nob with collectors who are world-recognized experts in their particular specialties.

  If you have some spare change you can spend $30-$50,000 on a single knife or purchase another for less than $5.00. Not only that, but if you want to build your own knives you can buy anything from wooden knife kits, finished blades of Damascus and other steels that only need to be handled or find the raw steel, hammers, forges, grinders and other equipment needed to outfit your own shop.

  Should you have knives to sell, there are buyers with ready cash to purchase them. Need a better example of a particular knife to upgrade your collection? You can get those too.  Have you always wanted an Army issue pocket knife like you turned in after Vietnam? Those are also available, to say nothing of bayonets issued by any of the world’s armies almost anytime in history. Sooner or later almost any type of edged weapon or tool that ever existed will surface at this show.

 Should three days of exposure at the show only whet your interests, you can find about the Knife Museum in Sevierville, Tennessee, subscribe to one of several knife publications, purchase any number of knife-making videos or books or join a knife-collectors’ association. You can also listen to two, 1-hour radio shows that I did on the event. These may be accessed through my website,, and click on the “Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures” link just below the banner. Part I features individual knife makers and Part II starts with a visit to Buck’s new factory at Post Falls, Idaho, and discusses knife and related companies that exhibited at the Blade Show. 

 The next show will also be held at the Cobb Galleria on June 8-10, 2012.  

 This 5-minute video was recorded at the 2011 Blade Show. If you have trouble in viewing it below you can also see it on YouTube at

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After your church burns, then what?

Sandersville's First Christian Church was heavily damaged by a fire, but thanks to rapid and appropriate actions by some 50 firemen, damage was confined to the roof of the 105-year-old building.

A fire at 10:30 A.M. on a hot June day in Sandersville, Georgia, ignited the roof of the 105-year-old First Christian Church. The pastor, Dale Andrews, happened to be in the church at the time and left to go across the street to the pastorage. When he next looked at the building smoke was billowing out from beneath the roof. Fire engines from Sandersville, surrounding communities and a state prison in Washington County as well as a unit from Hancock County fought the blaze.  About 50 firemen pumped 1.24 million gallons of water and fire- suppressing surfactant foam on the structure.

Preserving the roof beams kept the sanctuary ceiling from collapsing.

Darrell Lander, the Fire Chief of  Deepstep, Georgia, acted as the initial fire boss until he was replaced by a more senior fireman. Fire doors to adjoining wings of the sanctuary were locked, and the decisions were made to not break the churches’ irreplaceable windows and to protect the bell tower, since the fire appeared to be confined to the roof. The flames were allowed to vent through the roof which reduced smoke damage to the other parts of the structure. The surfactant foam allowed the wood to wet and retain some structural strength even though other timbers were burning. This was significant not only because it kept the roof from collapsing and bringing the fire down into the sanctuary below it, but also because structural elements of the sanctuary’s 30-foot-tall ceiling  were suspended by steel rods hung from roof beams.

  Ambient temperatures were over 90 degrees during the day.  Water, cold drinks and food were supplied to the fireman from the town’s restaurants. Two firemen who were overcome by smoke were air evacuated to Augusta. The combined fire crews did an excellent job of fighting the fire and preserving what they could of the old building.

   WMAZ TV, Macon’s Channel 13,  send personnel to cover the fire as well as church services the following Sunday. These had already been planned as an outdoor event conducted mainly by the laity.

  Firefighters were successful in keeping the flames from burning the interior of the sanctuary, but water damaged the walls and over four feet of water accumulated in the basement. This water was pumped out over the next two days.

  Still facing the congregation are matters of  insurance settlement, having the building inspected to determine its remaining structural soundness and deciding whether to restore, rebuild or reconfigure the sanctuary to make it more functional. The old sanctuary was designed prior to electronic amplification. Its tall ceiling, shaped something like the upper half of the inside of an egg, allowed not only for ventilation, but provided excellent acoustics. Another feature was a  pull-down wall which allowed the room to be divided into smaller spaces as needed.  

   When originally built, the church almost covered an entire corner lot, and church functions took place in the now-destroyed sanctuary and in basement rooms beneath it. Partly because of the confines of space on a small lot, the sanctuary was only accessed by steep narrow stairs which made it difficult to move large objects, like coffins, in and out of the building. In the late 1800s this was not a particular problem since funerals were still often held at graveside or in family homes.

  Funeral customs have, and are, changing. Interior services may now be held in a climate-controlled environment in any weather, the older members of the family can participate more comfortably  and  the ceremony can be recorded for, or transmitted in real-time to,  family members in distant places. A redesigned interior could allow for modern  conveniences as well as improving the building’s functionality while preserving many elements of the original sanctuary. These radical changes are now possible because the church previously purchased adjoining lots as these become available. These lots allowed wings for a social hall and offices to be added to the original building. These new wings were not damaged by the fire.

 What next? The church continues and the congregation and pastor carry on.  Outdoor services for Ascension Sunday, celebrating Christ’s ascent to heaven 40 days after Easter, were already planned. These took place with a congregation that regretted its loss, but was thankful that so much of their church had been saved. In coming weeks decisions will be made on rebuilding the church. 

In a newsletter written immediately after the fire, Paster Andrews affirmed that although the fire resulted in a loss to the church, he was overwhelmed with the  support provided by the community, businesses and other churches who offered use of their facilities.  “This is a wonderful place!!!!” he concluded.

I recorded a YouTube video of the congregation’s  Ascension Sunday services held two days after the fire.  If you have any difficulty in watching it here, you may also view it  at: .  You can follow future developments at the church through Pastor Andrews’ newsletter at

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Southern Comfort at Woodland Plantation, Louisiana

Woodland Plantation, West Point a La Hache, Louisiana.

 Spending the night in the beautifully restored and modernized Woodland plantation house with the Mississippi River at flood on the other side of the levee, gators in the pond back of the house, five other journalist from all around the country and a few resident ghosts is a memorable experience.  This overnight climaxed a post-Deepwater-Horizon-oil-spll tour for  journalist from Canada, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia  and Georgia through Louisiana’s Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

 Not only were these parishes recovering from the impact of last years’ oil well failure in the Gulf, they had suffered repeated disasters for five-years running with the Katrina-Rita hurricanes of 2005 being the most publicized events prior to the disastrous fire on the Horizon’s drilling platform . Previously  we had visited Grand Isle, the town of  Jean Lafitte as well as fished out of  Cajun Fishing Adventures Lodge at Buras.

 Our last evening we were to dine in the formal dining room at Woodland on the redfish and flounder that we had caught, and then, with  stomachs food of food and heads full of ghost stories, spend the night in our selection of  the houses’ bedrooms.  One of our group felt uncomfortable and decided that she wanted to change bedrooms while another debated whether he would stay in the house at all.  

Writers at the "House of Spirits."

  My inclinations as a writer, “sot in his ways,” is to do solo journalism. Most often I go on hunts by myself and write and do radio broadcasts about my experiences. It was fun and interesting to be associated with this diverse group of men and women as we each though about how write, photograph, video, blog and talk about our experiences. There were many interesting tidbits of information that were derived from our visits to these historic places, parks and refuges.

Southern Comfort with the Woodland Plantation label.

  Woodland, the house, was built in the 1830s by Captain William Johnson, a river pilot. Its location on the river bank at West Pointe A La Hache made for an easy commute to his job guiding vessels up and down the river to and from New Orleans. Later this house was used as the seat for a sugar plantation. The house’s image, with stern-wheeler river boats,  was put on the labels of Southern Comfort in 1934.  Its present owner, Foster Creppell, has converted the plantation into a resort and moved an abandoned church, now “The House of Spirits,” to the site  where he can host weddings, receptions and dining events. Using Southern Comfort as a base, he also developed a  “Woodland Punch” as the establishment’s signature  drink. This could be a suitable story subject for a magazine feature.

 Describing  the recovery efforts of the Louisiana seafood industry from the oiling of the beaches and wetlands  might be another story. Last year’s depressed tourism and loss of fishing income badly impacted local businesses and fishermen. There were many uncertainties, much confusion and conflicting information from a plethora of agencies all too eager to tell the locals what they could not do, but painfully slow to act to help control the spill and limit its consequences to land, fish and wildlife.

A year later, Louisiana’s seafood is likely the most heavily inspected product in the world, the sportfishing aspects have been restored and although some lingering questions remain about the long-term consequences to deep-water fish, seafood from the open parts of the near-shore environment is again among the best in the world. However, shrimpers all along the East and Gulf coasts are facing increased competition from foreign pen-rased shrimp that has depressed prices to the extent that many can no longer follow the lifestyle that their families have had for generations. There is certainly story potential in these topics from a variety of different directions.

 The story with the most depth that has the most impact on the most people is the loss of the Louisiana wetands which started in the 1700s with cutting the first cypress trees and continues to date where we are loosing a football field of ground to the ocean every 40 minutes.  Salt water coming into the fresh water bays reduces the habitat for culturing shrimp and other seafood species, reduces the “buffer lands” that slow the impact of  hurricanes on the lower river settlements and New Orleans as well as destroying habitat for both wildlife and man. Preserving these wetlands now has to be a proactive business. Neglect will only result in future and more losses. Levee cuts and diversions of freshwater to nourish the delta and physical barriers to replace the forested islands which once stood in the bays are needed to allow the wetlands to rebuild and reverse two centuries of steady erosion. This is a long-term and costly problem that needs to be resolved. As journalists we could do stories to highlight this.

This partly burned bridge typifies the state of Louisiana's wetlands. Part of it is lost with only damaged sections remaining while the rear still serves as a fishing pier. In both cases a major rebuilding would be needed to restore full functionality.

Our most important unresolved question for each of us as we sat around the supper table was, “Why would our readers care about what happens in lower Louisiana?” or “Why should our readers care?”

 It is comparatively easy to describe a series of events, a beautiful place, good food and interesting people. This is the stock of much journalistic writing. It is much more difficult to persuade and a higher order of magnitude to actually move someone to action. I have some advantages in this regard.  Age brings with it more life experiences and a larger knowledge base to start with. As a Professional Geologist I am a bit more attuned to the science. I hunt, fish and know my critters. I have interests in business as well as in journalism. I have access to and work in more media in that I do writing, videos and radio on a regular basis. Most importantly, I am not limited to topic, timing, approach or editorial slant. Unlike most of the world’s working journalist, I can editorialize in ways that would not be allowed in most media.

 I have. I have a blog entry on “tar balls” which is an interesting, although somewhat academic, subject with cultural implications.  The blog entry immediately preceding this is on Jefferson Davis’  home, Beauvoir, at Biloxi, which I visited on my way to Louisiana. There is another entry on my blog “Hovey’s Outdoor Adventure Radio Show Blog” which describes the radio show about the trip that will be aired on June 6, 2011, and available thereafter on and Apple’s iTunes. For those who like things in a visual format, I also have a YouTube video that I recorded at Woodland Plantation on YouTube at the wmhoveysmith channel that is also posted below. If you have trouble viewing it here use the following link to YouTube:

 Look for a story in Faze Magazine by Editor Dana Marie Krook,  in The Okaolahoman or other state outlets by Ryan Free, from Annie Toby (The Active Woman Traveler) in a variety of places and a colaboration of stories and photos from Cindy Ross and photographer Steve Wewerka. Each will use their quaint journalistic crafts to fulfill the often stated journalistic mandates to “comfort the aflicted and aflict the comfortable, ” tell a good story or issue a call to action over the next several months.

 Perhaps our work will bring some comfort to the area in the way of the beneficial changes, which I see as the ultimate aim of the journalistic crafts. The resident ghosts apparently thought so. All of us passed a very peaceful night at Woodland Plantation.  If you would like to stay there, visit their website at  

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Beauvoir: Jefferson Davis’ Home and Presidential Library, May, 2011


Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ last home, restored after hurricane Katrina.

Beauvoir was the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and where he wrote his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and A Short History of the Confederate States of America. Before he became President of the Confederate States, he had been a U.S. Army officer who served in the Mexican War, along with Robert E. Lee and others who would later become generals on both sides of the conflict. Always politically minded, Davis held numbers of state and national offices including being Secretary of  War, prior to succession.

  Davis was the only person in the former Confederacy who had his rights as a U.S. citizen permanently revoked. After Davis’ death his wife and daughter sold the estate to the Mississippi Division of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans who operated it as a home for veterans, their wives, widows, servants and orphans. Approximately 1,800 people spent time at the home and about half were buried at the Confederate Cemetary on the grounds. The veterans’  home closed in 1957.

Entrance to Beauvoir as the house was being stabilized prior to reconstruction.

  First opened to the public in 1941, Beauvoir came a tourist destination, and the first house tours were offered. Fires and storms removed the dormitories and other buildings  associated with the veterans’ home and most of the original outbuildings.  The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum opened in 1998.   Extensive exhibits were housed in a museum located in the “Library” which was a small ground-floor structure (since rebuilt) as one of a pair of buildings flanking the main house.  Uniforms, arms, exhibits and papers kept here were swept away by Katrina in 2005. Only a few piles of bricks remained from these structures.   Some items that were on exhibit were recovered and are being restored.

 A new Presidential Library is under construction and will be open in 2012. Both facilities remain under the operation of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The house is open for daily tours starting at 9:00 AM. For more information consult the website:

  The following video will show some of the damage done to the house from photos that I took on a second visit while the structure was being “stabilized.”  While some original artifacts may be seen at the temporary welcome center – ticket office, many more will be displayed when the new presidential library-museum is  completed in 2012.

The following video is also available on my YouTube channel “wmhoveysmith” at:  if you have difficulty in viewing it here.   

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Tar balls, asphalt and other Gulf Coast beach debris

Concerns have been expressed about the presence of "Tar Balls" on Gulf Coast beaches such as at Mobile, Alabama.

 Last year’s Deep Water Horizon well failure resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil being released into the Gulf of Mexico.  Although oil was captured relatively close to the well head and some was dispersed through chemical and wave action, sufficient  masses of oil remained relatively intact to form asphaltic ( commonly called tar) masses which floated to shore along with the oil.

Dried tar "sand" on the beach at Grand Isle State Part in Louisiana much closer to the site of the gushing Deep Water Horizon well.

Asphalt is a natural substance that forms when oils are exposed to evaporation and lose their volatile components. What remains is a sticky tar-like material that can collect as lakes (as in Venezuela) as tar pits (the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles) and in many less well know locations throughout the world. These materials were known and used in Roman times, and long before, for waterproofing clay pots and for making sticky burning missiles that might be catapulted to enemy ships.

Close up of "tar balls" collected from the beach at the Grand Island State park in Louisiana.

Although minor amounts of asphalt are still being mined, most is produced as a by-product of petroleum refining and sold to surface highways, as asphalt shingles on houses and to waterproof composite roofs. With the present rise in oil prices, the oil contained in the Alberta tar sands has become increasingly attractive as a domestic source of oil, although at a high cost in water consumption and potentially damaging pollution.

  The longer asphalt is exposed to air the more of its contained lighter hydrocarbon components are evaporated with the result that it progresses from being fluid, to a viscous liquid, to a solid and to ultimately a hard solid that must be heated to soften it enough to use. It is this hard, black product that  breaks  like thick glass, that is used for commercial roofing asphalt.

  Depending on its age, beach asphalt can have the consistency of goo to being rock-hard. Just as road asphalt becomes sticky on a very hot day, heat will also soften it. Gulf Coast beaches have dark materials on them that are derived from many sources and not all of them are related to escaped-oil-asphalt.

 After a year of exposure the Horizon asphalt is now still flexible, you can typically break it with the hands and is being found in now-elongate and irregular masses that may be up to 1-foot long. Initially many of these were more pancake- like flat sheets, but wave action has usually broken these into smaller fragments. These very often  have sand, bits of shell or stuck-on vegetation on their surfaces, although when broken they will show their solid black interiors.

  Larger masses contain more of the volatile hydrocarbons. The motion of movement up and down a beach front tends to produce elongate rounded rods, provided the material is strong enough. There is some tendency to form these shapes, but most commonly the “tar balls” are irregular polygonal forms with rounded edges.  Most will apparently ultimately form smooth, very-well-rounded flattened irregular masses.  Fewer that are caught in tidal flow channels where the action is more like that of a conventional stream, will become rounded spherical forms.

 Oil that was once droplets also evaporates and forms asphaltic grains or sand. Potentially these could re-aggregate if exposed to heat and a little pressure, but I have not observed this yet. These are observed as a black “sand” being deposited on the beaches at the high-tide mark.

  Other asphalt found on the Gulf Coast beaches is from highway pavement that was broken up and transported by wave action associated with historic storms. This may be differentiated from oil-well-derived asphalt because the road asphalt will contain large amounts of rock-aggregate particles, whereas the oil-well-asphalt almost always have only sand, shell and vegetation fragments adhering to the outside of the masses.

Tar masses (Left half of photo), road asphalt (Right upper quarter) and iron concretion and shale (Right lower quarter) along with fragments of burned wood (not shown) are all found on Gulf Coast beaches.  

Other dark materials that may appear on beaches include burned wood which I saw a lot of on the beach at Mobile, Alabama, dark mineral sands as on the South Carolina and Florida beaches as well as naturally occurring masses of clay and shale which form the bedrock on which the beaches are formed. Some, like the example shown in the photo, are ironstone concretions which may have been formed naturally or from iron derived from a nail or other man-made source.  A single one-inch nail can form a concretion that is over an inch in diameter by cementing rock, sand and shell with iron oxides.

  Asphalt is a collector, and holder, of heavy metal ions. Once chemically bonded to the organic materials, these will remain so long as the organic material is in solid form. They would be liberated only if the organic material’s bonds were broken by powerful solvents. Concerns have been expressed about the volatile organic compounds released while the asphalt is de-gassing.  The majority of this takes place fairly quickly when at least some visible oil is present. As time passes smaller amounts of gas is released as the asphalt continues to harden.

"Tar ball" on beach Grand Isle State Park, Louisiana. Isolated masses of tar like this pose little danger to the average beach goer.

  While I do not think anyone would be comfortable on a beach where tons of sticky asphaltic material was still actively de-gassing, a few scattered pieces of beach asphalt are not likely to present any serious health risks from a trip to the beach. While I would not suggest that people eat tar balls, at its present stage in small quantities this beach asphalt presents less risks that passing a paving crew laying down a new stretch of  pavement on the Interstate.

 Each year we are exposed to millions of pounds of asphalt on the nations highways, on our roofs and under our feet. Widely scattered clumps of oil-well-derived asphalt on a beach are not likely to place the beach goer at personal risk. I would not build my house out of it, but casting artworks or carving Gulf Coast asphalt could be reasonably done provided that the work area was properly ventilated and the off-gassed products were not exposed to ignition sources.