Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, with a Joni Mitchell song unexpectedly on my mind. 

A few weeks ago, I noticed a neighbor’s post on Nextdoor drawing a level of engagement surprising even for Nextdoor. The post, titled “Tar on Carmel and Pebble beaches” included photos of small, sticky tar patties the neighbor found along the county’s shore. The comment drew some shock and theories of oil spills, and debate between two schools of longtime locals: those who said it’s natural and something they’ve dealt with since time immemorial, and those who said they’ve never seen anything like it in their decades of living here.

My favorite comments were from neighbors who relied on songs to make the case that it’s common. One referenced the Jack Johnson lyric, “And her feet are all covered with tar balls and scars” from his 2001 single “Bubble Toes.” Another quoted Joni Mitchell: “My fingernails are filthy, I've got beach tar on my feet, and I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne,” from her 1966 song, “Carey.”

It turns out the phenomenon along California’s Central Coast is both common and often natural, according to articles and research over the last several years. Although not an annual occurrence, locals have been reporting beach tar—which can range in form from being smeared on rocks, to appearing in small individual patties or balls—for years. In 2008, the state sent crews to beaches in Monterey County to clean up tar along the shore, where it was tested and determined to originate from naturally occurring oil seeps and, thus, could not be mitigated.

In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey published a report that aimed to clarify exactly where this oil comes from. According to the study, led by scientist Thomas Lorenson, the natural oil seeps occur further south, around basins of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.

California sits on a 1,750-square-mile rock formation known as the Monterey Formation, which is the state’s primary petroleum source rock, according to a 2012 paper from UC Santa Barbara professor Richard Behl. The USGS study cited other studies that found all of the beach tar analyzed came from the Monterey Formation.

Ocean currents push the tar from Southern California up to the Central Coast. This latest episode of beach tar sent several residents calling the city of Carmel’s offices. Carmel City Administrator Chip Rerig says he regularly saw beach tar during his years in Santa Barbara but this is the first time he’s heard of it showing up in Carmel. The city called on Bridget Hoover, director of the water quality protection program for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, to examine the tar. Hoover did not respond to calls for comment, but Rerig says her analysis pointed to natural seepage.

“The recent southern swell and wind conditions were ideal for natural seep oil to reach Monterey Bay,” Rerig wrote in his weekly Friday Newsletter on July 2.

The best advice is to be aware of potential natural tar when you head to the beach. The second best advice is to use baby oil to get the tar off your feet, and turpentine to get it off your shoes. And the overall advice is, don’t worry if you see tar on the beach.

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