NAVARRE BEACH, Fla. – At the height of summer, tar balls and paddies of oil were rolling ashore along the Florida Panhandle. Months later, sand castles are being built and swimmers frolic in the water, even though crude lies buried beneath the white sands.
Despite lingering concerns about the hidden oil from BP's massive spill, sand-sculpting artists were etching masterpieces in a weekend competition designed to boost tourism and erase the images of oil-stained beaches.
"The media about the oil spill could give you an impression that all beaches were negatively affected. I don't think it's that bad. I think things have been cleaned up," said sand artist Katie Corning of Fort Meyers Beach. "Many of the sculptors coming here this weekend live along the Gulf Coast and are concerned about letting people know that the beaches are healthy and beautiful."
Yet there are bands of oil buried between 18 and 24 inches below the sand.
BP spokesman Ray Melick said Navarre Beach, where the competition is being held, is among a stretch of Panhandle that remains part of the company's clean up effort. The company is working with the Department of Interior for clearance to allow workers to use heavy machinery to remove the buried oil.
"The National Historic Preservation Act prevents it," he said. "We are applying for clearance from archaeologists to allow us to go deeper. We want to make sure we don't disturb any buried archaeological treasure."
Among the buried treasures could be artifacts from a Spanish settlement founded more than 450 years ago. The settlement lasted only two years from its founding in 1559, and searchers continue to search for its exact location.
And in 2006, the Navy discovered a centuries-old Spanish ship that had been buried beneath the sand on Pensacola's Naval Air Station.
BP crews have in recent months worked to clear oil that has been buried beneath the sand on the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Federal clearance is also required to dig beneath the surface in those states.
However, the digging limitations do not restrict beachgoers from building sandcastles, he said.
At the Navarre competition, sculptors worked away from the ocean on the beach behind an area of sand berms where oil did not wash on shore. Organizers said the spot was selected because of concerns about nesting sea turtles and crowds.
Panhandle beach communities already have the proper Department of Interior permits to dig below six inches in the sand with machinery because of ongoing projects to repair sand berms after tropical storms, said Buck Lee, who oversees the island authority that includes Pensacola Beach. Lee said he was frustrated with the oil giant and bureaucracy that has grown through the months and wants to the buried oil to quickly be cleaned.
"We've seen it out there and we know it exists. It all washed in waves and ribbons in June and it has been covered up. BP has done the testing and they know where it is," he said.
Navarre leaders funded the sandcastle event with money given by the oil giant to the state to promote tourism in the wake of the spill.