First we had ‘Fatbergs’ now disgusting ‘Tar Balls’ are hitting Ireland’s west coast

Published by David Hayden on

10 March 2017

Never mind dangerous white ‘fatbergs’ peppering Ireland’s east coast.

In a case of bizarre symmetry we now have disgusting black ‘tar balls’ hitting the west coast.

Beach walkers on Achill Island’s Blue-Flag Keel Beach have reported ‘tar-like blobs’ in the sand this week. It’s particularly disturbing to find residue of petroleum sea-pollution washing ashore in a location that prides itself on being ‘the jewel in the crown of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way’.

The Blue Flag is one of the world’s most recognised eco-labels. Beaches and marinas that achieve this accolade must comply with a specific set of criteria relating to water quality, information provision, environmental education, safety and beach management. At beaches the bathing water must comply with the excellent standard in accordance with the 2006 EU Bathing Water Directive. The Blue Flag is operated in Ireland by An Taisce-The National Trust for Ireland on behalf of the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). 

These pungent blobs, known as ‘tar balls’ washed ashore this Wednesday with high tide. These tar balls, are described as soft, black and shiny, they are often intertwined with seaweed and they are recognizable by their pungent odour, tar balls smell strongly of oil and are very sticky to touch. Their size can be as much as ten inches in diameter.

According to an article in the Irish Times, Operations Manager at the Irish Coast Guard, Declan Geoghegan said that oil pollution at sea sometimes breaks up into balls. The balls resurface after several years and are relatively harmless. Mayo County Council said that the tar balls would be examined and the situation would continue to be monitored.

Last May, foul-smelling globules washed up on the shoreline near Elly Bay, Co Mayo, and on Cross Beach in Erris.
Several residents reported that their animals became ill after attempting to eat them.

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These ‘tar balls’ which have been rather vividly described as ‘gobs of black goo’ which were ‘strewn across the beach’ resemble those regularly washed up on the coastline of Texas on the gulf coast of the USA. They can be caused by a major oil spill, discharge from marine vehicles or occasionally natural seepage from the ocean floor. Testing may be able to shed some light on the origin of these rather ugly ‘flowers of fossil fuels’ as Robin Tricoles described them in the Atlantic.

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It is not yet known where the ‘tar balls’ found on Keel Beach originated from. Let’s hope for the sake of our Wild Atlantic Way that these unfortunate deposits are a once off anomaly.

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David Hayden

David is a contributor to the Green News. He has a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and French from UCD as well as a Master's Degrees in French literature and New Media from the University of California at San Diego and the Johns Hopkins University.