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Officials issue warning after discovering hundreds of pieces of tar along coastal states: 'Right now, it is an unknown source'

"It is a slightly gooey texture that may be petroleum-related."

"It is a slightly gooey texture that may be petroleum-related."

Photo Credit: iStock

Hundreds of pieces of tar have recently appeared along the West Coast, washing ashore in Oregon and southern Washington. Federal and state officials aren't sure of the source, though experts believe an oil spill is to blame.

What's happening?

Sand dollar-sized globs of tar — often called tar balls — have recently been spotted along beaches in Oregon and Washington, according to a news release by the U.S. Coast Guard. Along with these tar balls, wildlife rescuers have also discovered at least 10 local birds covered in crude oil — some of them dead.

The Coast Guard reported that the source of the tar is currently a mystery. 

"Right now, it is an unknown source," Kevin Chan, an emergency response coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, recently told local news station KGW8. "It is a slightly gooey texture that may be petroleum-related."

Why are these mysterious tar balls concerning?

Tar balls are often telltale signs of a nearby oil spill. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tar balls develop from the "remnants of oil spills, but can also be produced from natural seeps, or places where oil slowly escapes from the earth surface above some petroleum reservoirs."

In 2023, around 600,000 gallons of oil spilled into our oceans, rivers, and lakes, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. And the impact is sorely felt.

Oil spills, both big and small, are notorious for causing environmental harm, disrupting natural ecosystems on land and sea. Oil spills can contaminate drinking water, causing adverse health impacts in humans and animals. Crude oil can also contaminate fish and other aquatic life, bringing harmful toxins into the global food supply.

According to the NOAA, exposure to toxic compounds found in crude oil can cause severe health problems, including heart damage, stunted growth, immune system effects, and even death.

What's being done about the recent discovery of tar on the West Coast?

Federal and state officials are working to pinpoint the cause of the oil spill. Investigative flights, beach surveys, and shoreline assessments are underway to find evidence of an oil spill. Samples of the tar balls have been sent to a lab for analysis, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The U.S. Coast Guard cautioned that the public should not touch tar balls or attempt to assist any oiled wildlife. Instead, report any findings to officials by calling 1-800-222-4737.

Even if a hands-on approach is ill-advised, there are still ways to address crude oil contamination — and consumption — in your own life. Join community clean-up efforts led by official organizations, track your state's policies and plans for the oil industry, and consider switching to alternative energy sources like solar or wind power where possible.

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