What are tar balls and why is Galveston getting them?

A generic image of a tar ball

HOUSTON – Galveston authorities told KPRC 2 on Tuesday they are receiving reports of tar balls in the area, from Bolivar to Matagorda.

Brandon Hill, Galveston coastal resources manager, attributes the tar balls to recent storms.

What are tar balls?

Hill said tar balls happen naturally.

“Weathered tar is the term used to describe the oil or tar that seeps from the Gulf due to natural or anthropogenic forces and then floats in the Gulf currents until eventually sinking to the Gulf floor or making landfall,” he wrote via email. “The material becomes sunbaked and encrusted in branching bryozoans and other sea life during this time. Per standard procedure, the city has reported the landings to the Texas General Land Offices Oil Spill Response Team and is waiting to hear back from the field office on the results of any samples that have been taken.”

Why are they showing up in the Galveston area?

Hill said via email that recent meteorological events in the Yucatan may have stirred up and pushed the “weathered tar” toward Galveston’s beaches.

“It’s fairly widespread but not at a level warranting a response action from the GLO oil spill response team,” Hill said via email with KPRC 2. “They are on the beaches now confirming that it hasn’t reached a level that warrants a cleanup. I was told by the GLO that they’ve been spread out sparsely from Bolivar to Matagorda. This is most likely occurring all along the Texas coast right now as a result of the recent storms.”

Scale of the sightings

“We do want to be clear,” he continued. “This is a very light occurrence being closely monitored and is within what would be considered the natural occurrence levels for this sort of material. It isn’t an ‘event’ that is ‘impacting’ one area in particular. It’s more like a natural phenomenon inherent in the Gulf that is being observed in populated beaches, but is occurring over a wide area right now.”

About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.