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Unknown 'Oily Sheen' Off Oregon Coast May Be Behind Tar-like Mystery, Finds Further South

Published 5/25/24 at 6:35 p.m.
By Andre' Hagestedt, Oregon Coast Beach Connection

(Newport, Oregon) – Visitors to the Oregon coast and Washington coast need to take extra care along the beaches and keep themselves and pets away from the patches of tar that have been washing up in the last week. There has been a “Unified Command” set up between various state and federal agencies, as more are being discovered farther south and one possible cause has been spotted off the north Oregon coast.

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The Unified Command is a combination of agencies being led by the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington Department of Ecology and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

DEQ said they have collected samples from beaches and are still testing the tar-like material. However, firm results are not expected until next week.

In the meantime, what's causing it may or may not be just off the beaches of Clatsop County, 1.5 miles or so off Cannon Beach. Other oil sheens in the past along the coast have occurred because of disabled vessels but they did not cause incidents such as this.

Beth Quillian, who is a spokesman with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), is also fielding questions for the Unified Command. She confirmed there has been an “oily sheen” spotted 1.5 miles offshore from Cannon Beach, but that is still being examined. What it's made of – or if it's the cause of this incident – is “still unconfirmed” she told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

[Ongoing updates from DEQ]

“The Coast Guard is still conducting flyovers and has been since Thursday,” Quillian said.

The sheen has only been spotted in the Cannon Beach area and it does not appear to be moving south. According to what Quillan had, so far there's no evidence it had come from the north, as the first patches began showing up on the Washington coastline.

“I have not heard if that sheen specifically – on the water - has been seen elsewhere,” she told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

Unified Command said it had no information yet about any plans for vessels to head out and examine the sheen. Oregon Coast Beach Connection will have updates on this Sunday.

Luckily, the incidents have slowed down or halted on the Washington coast.

DEQ announced earlier Saturday that more tar-like patches had been found farther south, including around Yaquina Head at Newport. Quillan said since then another had been discovered at Holiday Beach, which is just a few miles south of South Beach.

National Weather Service satellite image from May 25, noonish: resolution was not good enough to spot the sheen as some satellites have done

Responders are continuing their search for oiled birds or more tar patches and they will continue to clean them as they're found. Grass roots groups Washington Coast Savers and Coast Watch are also scouring beaches with volunteers. You can see reports as they come on the Coast Watch site, although nothing has been spotted by participants yet.

Officials from Unified Command and all involved continue to urge the public to not touch oiled birds or the tar patches as the substance is still unknown.

“Dogs and other pets should be kept away from these materials,” DEQ said Saturday. “Tar balls are sticky and can get on skin, hair and clothing. If this happens, wash the area with soap or degreasing dishwashing detergent and water. Avoid using solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel or similar products.”

If you see oiled birds or other wildlife, report it to 1-800-22-BIRDS (1-800-222-4737). Untrained handling of affected wildlife is dangerous to the animals and any individuals attempting to help.

If you find oily patches, contact Oregon State Police or local police at the non-emergency numbers. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

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Above: photos ODFW. Silver Point near Cannon Beach at the top

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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