Tarballs Reported at Hawai‘i Island Beach

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Spencer Beach Park. PC: James Grenz

Hawai‘i County filed a complaint with Hawai‘i Department of Health on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, after beachgoers reported seeing black material at Spencer Beach Park earlier in the week.

Concerns about a potential oil spill affecting Spencer Beach Park in South Kohala prompted the complaint after the presence of tar was identified amid its sands.

The DOH’s Evaluation and Emergency Response team as well as its Clean Water Branch joined Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation employees along with lifeguards to survey the beach last Friday.


A news report revealed that Anna Koethe, a DOH public health information coordinator, said the Clean Water Branch investigator found a tarball the size of a dime and then found two smaller pieces stuck on their shoes after walking on the north side of the beach.

The investigation was then placed back under the purview of Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation, which Koethe said returned to the beach over the weekend “with a focus” on the section where tarballs were identified.

Big Island Now contacted the Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation Department, but has not yet received a reply.


The DOH said the tarballs probably originated from an oil spill or were produced from natural seeps in the Earth’s crust releasing oil into the ocean in small amounts, forming oil slicks.

Oil from the slicks often forms tarballs, which can be “as large as a pancake but are more commonly the size of coins,” Koethe explained.

“Tarballs are very persistent in the marine environment and can travel hundreds of miles,” she said.


She said it can be very difficult to pinpoint an exact source of the spill or contamination without an actual observation of a spill from a passing vessel.

The state may fine tanker or vessel owners found to be responsible for an oil spill. However, this DOH investigation did not determine the source of the tarballs at the park or render any witnesses to the spill, so punitive action is unlikely.

Minimal human contact with oil doesn’t typically result in any physical harm, Koethe said, but some may experience allergic reactions after direct oil-to-skin contact.

“In general, it is recommended that contact with oil be avoided,” Koethe continued. “If contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water, baby oil, or a widely used, safe cleaning compound such as the cleaning paste sold at auto parts stores.”

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