State investigating source of oil-based beach blobs 

"Sticky tar balls" have washed up on some beaches between Moss Beach and Monterey, but no one has determined yet what brought the squishy masses to the shores.

This week, officials from the state Department of Fish and Game collected the so-called tar balls at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, and at beaches farther south in Watsonville, Aptos and Pacific Grove. The samples were sent for analysis to the department’s Water Pollution Control Laboratory in Rancho Cordova. Results should be available sometime this week, Fish and Game spokesman Robert Hughes said.

Lab results will confirm whether the oil is naturally occurring crude oil from the Miocene Monterey Formation — a depository of unique sediments formed around the Pacific Rim millions of years ago — that seeped up from the ocean after the recent rainy weather. Storms often jar the ocean and prompt the formation of tar balls; choppy waves sweep them ashore.

The worst-case scenario is that the oil actually came from an illegal dumping out at sea, which would prompt an extensive department investigation.

The odd masses of weathered oil and sand, which Hughes said do not present much danger to humans or wildlife, can be round and marble-shaped or flat like a pancake and about the diameter of an adult’s palm.

Hughes said his agency has hundreds of oil samples taken over several years and would be able to easily determine where the oil came from.

"[The tar balls are] just one of those things that identifies California," Hughes said.

San Mateo County rangers at Fitzgerald Marine Reservealso took some samples and sent them to the state for further analysis.

"It doesn’t happen often," David Holland, San Mateo County Parks and Recreation director, said. "But when it does, it’s often in the same context of heavy rains right beforehand."

Linda Ciotti, board member of the nonprofit Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, said she was on the beach on Sunday when a ranger spotted a tar mass that was flat and draped around a stick.

"We’ve seen them before, sure," Ciotti said. "The rangers know what to do with them."

In the unlikely event that a bird tried to eat one, Hughes said the bird would probably become sick but there would be no life-threatening illness.

If any beachcombers step on the tar balls or get residue on themselves, Hughes recommends that they wash it off with dishwashing liquid instead of kerosene, which was a method for oil removal years ago.

tramroop@examiner.com

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