The truck-sized "Sand Shark" is widely considered to be the best way of digging up and removing the crude oil deposited here this summer during the nation's worst offshore-drilling disaster.

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PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — Ruby sunrises over turquoise water and swarms of migrating monarch butterflies made for memorable scenery along the beaches of Florida’s western Panhandle this month.

But the most arresting image here was that of the mechanical leviathan feasting on tar balls in the sand.

A thunderous assembly of corkscrews, conveyor belts and vibrating screens is devouring the coastline inch by inch, spitting out fluffed and nearly flawlessly clean sand in its wake.

The rolling machine can actually be a little too effective, which alarms ecologists, who treasure the Panhandle’s beaches as something more than outdoor sets for sunbathing. But the truck-sized “Sand Shark” is widely considered to be the best way of digging up and removing the crude oil deposited here this summer during the nation’s worst offshore-drilling disaster.

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In a region still in shock over the financial and psychological damage inflicted by BP’s months-long oil spill, the act of watching and listening to the Sand Shark at work is for many a mesmerizing form of therapy.

“It’s amazing,” said Terry Morris, an oil-spill-response coordinator for Gulf Shores National Seashore, which abuts both ends of Pensacola Beach’s commercial strip of hotels and restaurants. “It leaves the sand as clean as a golf-course sand trap.”

Plunge in visitors

Businesses on or near Pensacola Beach and its neighbor Perdido Key depend on a surge of tourism each year from May to September. But this summer, as the “world’s whitest beaches” were paved black with BP crude, the number of visitors plunged.

In July 2009, for example, about 470,000 vehicles came through the toll booths of Bob Sikes Bridge on their way to Pensacola Beach. This year’s July count dropped to about 425,000 — and a large share of those weren’t tourists but part of an army of oil-spill responders.

W.A. “Buck” Lee, the vocal executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority — a sort of city hall for unincorporated Pensacola Beach — is determined to push next year’s July toll-bridge count to a half-million.

To make that happen, the beaches need to be clean beyond doubt, and that will require a fleet of Sand Sharks, Lee said.

“This is the only machine I’ve seen that truly works,” he said.

A BP technical team designed the first $300,000 Sand Shark, and VT LeeBoy, of North Carolina, is fabricating the machines.

The first arrived in Florida in August and is working the national seashore. Another went to work a couple of weeks ago on Perdido Key, near the Florida-Alabama state line. Three more are expected to start sifting through beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi by the end of the month.

Lee wishes they were all in Pensacola Beach — and dialed up to their most-aggressive mode of operation. For now, though, authorities are restricting the Sand Sharks’ operators from digging deeper than 6 inches, citing federal rules that protect historic and archaeological features.

Turtle nesting

But the machines can chew through sand 18 inches deep, and Lee points out to anybody who will listen that, whenever the beach’s sand is replenished — as it was in 2005 — federal authorities require that the rebuilt beach be plowed to a depth of 24 inches once a year for three years, to ensure the sand is soft enough for turtle nesting.

“The federal government requires that, but the federal government doesn’t know that it requires that,” Lee said, exasperated by what he regards as bureaucratic bungling in response to the oil spill.

Even after Sand Sharks have plowed the full 8 miles of Pensacola Beach, Lee is going to press BP to pay for dredging up thousands of tons of additional sugar sand from a few miles offshore and spreading it along the shoreline — an act he hopes will bury a bad memory.

“We have to win back the confidence of tourists,” Lee said.

Tons of tar balls are found by people who are trained to look for them. Orlando native Joyce Riesinger works for the state Department of Environmental Protection in the Panhandle. Every morning, she joins one of the many teams composed of state, BP and Coast Guard personnel for what amounts to precise beachcombing.

She said the highest parts of the beach are often the cleanest. The lower portions, including dips and depressions, are filled with the ribbons, mats and balls of tar that came ashore months ago.

“The beach profile kind of directed that,” said Riesinger, whose maps and technical reports are used to direct cleanup efforts.

While driving through the park, Morris, a former chief law-enforcement ranger at Gulf Shores National Seashore, recalled the oil slick’s arrival on a nighttime high tide in late June.

Little cleanup took place the next day, and that evening, a new high tide buried the oil beneath a layer of fresh sand. That was followed by storms and several days of strong winds that piled even more sand on BP’s crude.

“It was the worst time oil could have hit us,” Morris said.

Eventually, BP’s contract crews marched on to Pensacola Beach, picking up tar balls by hand, but the national seashore’s supervisors kept heavy equipment away until this year’s turtle- and bird-nesting seasons were mostly over.

Digging by hand

Now, hundreds of laborers are digging up and removing tar balls by hand. Morris said the crews are much more effective now that the weather has cooled and the workers are more expert at ferreting out buried oil.

Jason Bragg, who is directing BP’s mechanical removal of tar balls from Panhandle beaches, said the Sand Shark isn’t a “rocket ship.” But it’s thorough, removing all objects larger than 3 millimeters — about the width of three pinheads, he said.

The 11-foot-tall machine weighs 35,000 pounds, moves at up to two miles an hour, requires a crew of six to 10 people, and in a pair of 10-hour shifts can clean a strip of sand 8 feet wide and 1.5 miles long, Bragg said.

Daniel Brown, Gulf Island National Seashore’s park superintendent, said his staff is having an intense debate about how deep the Sand Shark should be allowed to operate.

“Our concern is we don’t do more harm by removing oil,” he said. “To us, beaches are a lot more than sand and water.”

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