(April 26, 2019) A perfect storm of circumstances is the likely culprit behind the mystery of the sticky, slimy substance that’s been coming off the bay and gooing up the cars and properties of some Ocean City residents.

Montego Bay residents Kathleen and Chris Kenny have been plagued for months by an unidentified gunk that has covered their house and their cars, at times, and even eroded parts of their metal rain gutters.

Kathleen Kenny said they moved to the area about five years ago and dealt with the issue about once a year – until last year, when the flying slime started to appear about once a month.

“It’s beige, foamy, very viscous, greasy and extremely stubborn to clean,” Kenny said. Along with power washing their home, Kenny said she and her husband must use rags and cleaning products like Windex and Mr. Clean to remove the gunk from their windows and siding.

They also take their three vehicles about once a month to a do-it-yourself carwash on 54th Street, because the automatic carwash “doesn’t get rid of [the slime] completely.”

“That makes me question, what is this?” she said, adding, “it’s actually eating through our aluminum gutters.”

Car scum

Removing the bay-borne goo from the car requires scrubbing, not just a quick rinse.

The Kennys live directly across from the Assawoman Bay, in an area where the bulkhead points to their home like an arrow.

“Normally, our home is a direct hit and, depending on how wild the wind gets, the neighbors will get it too,” Kenny said. “The lady that lives directly across from us, she is right on the water [and] she gets it too … the exterior of her house is mostly windows and she gets it on her windows.”

Along with dealing with the additional the cost of cleaning products and car washes, Kenny has lost wages from work, because the cleaning process takes up an entire day, she said.

“We’ve had people comment about, ‘boy, you’re a busy bee’ or ‘you’re a clean freak.’ And I’m like, did you not notice what exactly we were doing there?” Kenny said. “The people who get the peripheral hit are aware of it, but they don’t live there all the time, so maybe it’s rained hard before they come back down. They just think we had a storm and they got some dirt – they’re not witnessing it firsthand.

“When it was once a year, we thought it was nasty, but it wasn’t so often that I felt compelled to call anybody about it,” she added.

Kenny said her biggest question is why the incidents are now occurring so much more frequently.

“I wonder, if it is pollution, what kind is it and what’s the source of it,” she said. “It’s definitely blowing up from the bay and it seems to fly up when it’s a northwest wind.

“It’s very discouraging,” Kenny added. Assateague Coastal Trust Executive Director Kathy Phillips said she had two theories. First, it could be a type of micro algae.

“Most areas of the upper bays kind of have a brownish or mahogany brown color to them that’s called a ‘mahogany tide.’ It’s a particular type of algae, and when the wind blows over it, it stirs up the surface water and it forms this foam,” Phillips said. “Since we’ve been having west winds, it’s probably pushing it up into the canals in Montego Bay.”

Phillips said it could also be the result of wind and salt water in the bay.

“When the wind consistently keeps blowing over it and forming little whitecaps out in the bay, a salty foam forms. It’s brownish, but it’s a more frothy-looking foam, and it builds up and gets pushed into the canals … and just backs up. So, people start to notice it, because it’s kind of filling in around their docks,” she said.

Sea foam

Sea foam along the bay near 33rd Street earlier this year is said to be the product of algae blooms.

“That happens a lot around here. It can happen in Ocean City and it can happen in Ocean Pines,” Phillips added.

If the foam is sticky and corrosive, however, Phillips said that was more likely the result of an algae bloom, or a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae, often recognizable by the discoloration of water from the algae’s pigment.

“I have some pictures that someone sent me about a month ago from up in north Ocean City, and it looked like you could walk across the canal,” she said. 

Town of Ocean City Environmental Engineer Gail Blazer said similar resident complaints have come in all winter – roughly from Thanksgiving through February – and she believes it’s the result of algae blooms.

In talking with representatives from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Blazer said, the algae bloom is not harmful.

“It was just a brown algae and, because we get such fluctuation in temperatures – we get a 70-degree day and a 50-degree day and a 30-degree day – we keep getting these algae blooms and it lasted a couple months,” she said.

According to Blazer, an overabundance of nutrients in the bay speeds up the growth of algae and dinoflagellates, or small microorganisms in the water.

“We don’t have hydrocarbons or trash – the pollutant of concern is nutrients, which is nitrogen/phosphorus, and that’s what plants grow,” she said. “Plants can grow in the water, so the macro-nutrients are growing in the water and that causes the different colors.”

Blazer said high and frequent winds, caused by the storms of late, work to create the foamy substance.

“People call me a lot thinking, ‘oh, the hotel is dumping soap suds.’ Well, soapsuds would have been gone in 10 minutes. This is lasting weeks,” she said.

What’s more, Blazer said, the foamy substance can then pick up dirt, similar to week-old snow.

“After a while, it looks brown, or it looks black because of all the stuff that lays on top of it, all the natural stuff falling out of the sky,” she said. “The same thing happens with this foam.

“Then, if the wind starts blowing it up, it’s just churning it up and it’s going to make it air-born,” Blazer added.

Unfortunately for the Kennys, they’re in the direct line of fire.

“Right where they’re at, if the wind’s coming from the northwest and it’s blowing hard, it’s just going to blow right up into their house,” she said.

The good news is, the substance isn’t toxic.

“It’s a natural thing that’s happening,” Blazer said. “It’s not like it’s a pollutant – it’s not going to kill them.”

She said the Maryland Department of the Environment has tested the water and no health advisories were issued.

“Basically, it’s a natural event,” Blazer said. “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta clean your house off. If she wants to move, I’d hate to see that, but it doesn’t happen every year and it may not happen again.

“It’s just part of the natural ecology of the water column and the ecosystem of our estuary,” she continued. “It’s not going to go on forever, but this year seems to be a situation that just all the conditions came [together], like the perfect storm.”

Blazer said the best stormwater management practices, such as infiltration trenches, bio-retention and pervious surfaces, are required on new development to reduce such instances.

“It micromanages the runoff and gives the water a time to infiltrate and be treated by the soil and vegetation,” she said. “The nutrients in the water [are] also used by trees and shrubs.”

She added residents could help reduce nutrient runoff, simply by having landscaping.

“The more we can reduce the nutrients going to the bays, the less algae blooms,” she said. “Algae blooms can cause this foam problem, but also a lot of other issues such as anoxic water, fish kills, etc. Our goal is to reduce the runoff and infiltrate as much of the first flush as we can.

“I try and protect the existing landscaping and encourage more because of the water quality benefit,” she continued. “As the conditions are just right, we will have these issues periodically … but everyone needs to do their part to reduce runoff.”

Josh Davis is an MDDC award-winning editor and reporter at the Bayside Gazette and Ocean City Today newspapers, covering Berlin and Ocean Pines, Maryland. He is the author of three novels, including 'Vanishing is the Last Art' (2012). He lives in Berlin.

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