Skip to content
Environmental Quality Control (EQC)

Tar Balls

Image of a tar ball on the beach.

Oil will ‘weather’ to form small, hard, floating black pellets or chunks of oil called tar balls.

Image of tar ball in a person's hand.

Tar balls that wash up on the beach are usually the size of a coin.

What is a tar ball?

When crude oil floats on the ocean’s surface, it spreads out in a thin shiny slick. The water and wind tear it into smaller patches, which are scattered over a wider area. Physical, chemical and biological changes evaporate the lighter parts of the oil, leaving the heavier parts to mix with water to form a thicker, stickier substance called emulsion, which looks like chocolate pudding.  Wind and waves continue to stretch and tear the oil into smaller pieces — these are tar balls.

By the time they wash up on a beach, tar balls are usually coin-sized. However tar balls as large as a pancake have also been found.

If you see a tar ball on a South Carolina beach this summer, don’t panic. Here is what to do:

  • Note the tar ball’s color and appearance and the location, date and time.
  • Report it to the Coast Guard (the lead government agency) by calling 1-800-424-8802 or fill out a form on the Coast Guard’s Website.
  • Don’t pick up the tar ball. They may seem firm on the outside, but if broken open they will reveal a sticky interior, much like a toasted marshmallow. They can soil your hands and clothing.
  • If skin contact occurs, wash with soap and water or remove with baby oil. If you get oil on your clothes, launder them as normal.
  • Do not burn trash or driftwood contaminated with oil.

After reporting the tar ball to the Coast Guard, you may also report it to DHEC directly by calling:

  • Horry and Georgetown Counties: (843) 238-4378
  • Charleston County (843) 953-0150
  • Colleton, Beaufort and Jasper Counties: (843) 846-1030.