The Anatomy of an Oil Spill Cleanup: What Works and What Doesn't


Preston Kott of U.S. Environmental Services moves oil absorbent boom into a warehouse at a pollution control staging area in Venice, La., April 27, 2010. Staging areas are being set up along the Gulf coast as the Deepwater Horizon spill continues to spread. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley. Photo and caption via: uscglantareapa's photostream.

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig (majority-owned by BP) exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last Tuesday night, the news has gone from bad to worse. First the rig sank. Then the Coast Guard lit it on fire. Next we found out that there was not just one leak but two, and they were gushing the equivalent of not 1,000 barrels of oil per day, but 5,000. All of which puts the Louisiana coast at serious risk. And as the oil spill lurched toward the Mississippi Delta yesterday, containment efforts became a foremost concern: At stake are the livelihoods of oyster farmers, shrimp harvesters, and anyone who relies on the areas large tourism industry, just to name a few, as well as the fragile ecosystem of this area, including endangered Bluefin tuna who come to this area in springtime to spawn. But just how do you do damage control on this kind of thing? Oil Spill Cleanup on the High Seas
How quickly crews can react, how big a spill is (or, in the case of the Gulf incident, an underground leak from an an exploration oil rig, as opposed to a production rig or boat), and weather conditions all have a lot to do with the type of remediation or containment that will be chosen. Obviously, oil and water don't mix, which means the oil spreads out along the surface of the water, creating a sheen or slick.

According to How Stuff Works:

If a crew can reach a spill within an hour or two, it may choose containment and skimming to clean up the slick. Long, buoyant booms which float on the water and a skirt that hangs below the water contain the slick and keep the oil from spreading out. T­his makes it easier to skim oil from the surface, using boats that suck or scoop the oil from the water and into containment tanks.

Oil spills happen without any advance notice, and the first wave of cleanup -- all mechanical -- begins within hours. Whatever equipment, human resources, absorbent materials, and dispersing agents are immediately accessible are what get used in scooping up what oil can be taken. The pros do it. Citizens don't. The second wave of cleanup happens once the oil makes landfall (more on this later). That's where the citizen volunteers and NGOs come in.

Booms -- those orange tube-like things you've seen floating in the water in images across the news -- have been used in the current cleanup. These are inflatable devices, placed both offshore and very close to the coast, meant to create a literal barrier past which the oil cannot pass or iwhich can absorb the oil. Crews will also use skimming devices, supplied by the Navy to the Coast Guard, to scoop the oil from the surface of the water. However, uncooperative weather has made the booms ineffective. According to Reuters, "Weather is one of our biggest challenges," said Ayana Mcintosh-Lee, a BP spokeswoman. "Wind and waves are up. Seas are at 6-8 feet which can make it difficult to deploy boom." In some areas, "some of the boom appeared to have broken free and washed onto an area beach and other boom appeared to have sunk," according to the Times-Picayune. Unfortunately, it seems implausible that any of this will work for the volume of this spill, which could equal the size of the Exxon Valdez spill with about two months.


The oil rig abalze. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
What Works When Oil Makes Landfall, What Won't, and What We Learned from The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
Apologies to the entrepreneurs hoping that their waste hair balls, straw gobs, and dried mushroom-bit inventions were going to be a viable means of sopping up BP's current mess once it hits the beach, but let us be blunt: They won't. (At least not right away.) Not just because the government does not have these items on a list, but because this is an emergency and new product inventors won't be able to meet logistical needs of what is needed immediately. Availability rules in desperate times, so whatever government-approved materials are stockpiled in the warehouse closest to the spill, so to speak, are likely what's going to be used.

In responding to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, much was learned about what works for cost effective oil spill cleanup, and logistics turned out to be the key to it all. Inventing a dispersant (chemical agents such as surfactants, solvents, and other compounds used to reduce the effect of oil spills by changing the chemical and physical properties of the oil) or bioremediation agent (microorganismsor biological agents used to break down or remove oil) was only a small part of the solution then, and it still is that way. Some of the spill response treatments proposed after Valdez were found to be more hazardous than oil for marine organisms. For example, steam cleaning rocks, in retrospect, wasn't such a good idea. (Think about the carbon footprint.) And you can't remove all the oil from a duck's feathers; it would die. The nuances of what it is used and how it used have everything to do with "successful" clean up.

WATCH VIDEO: How hair mats can be used in oil spill cleanup

Put more succinctly, oil dispersants and bioremediation agents -- the kinds of things that the non-professionals will seek to help with cleanup -- are suitable for cleaning up oil only after it makes landfall. Such cleanup products can only be used by public authorities responding to an emergency if they are individually listed on the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule. Additionally, many states require that remediation products be approved before they can be used. (It's important to note that rescuing wildlife with cleaning and dispersing agents should only be done if a product is known to have offer clear benefits to the species of concern. Work with local fish and wildlife agencies is imperative.)


A star fish washes ashore on the Chandeleur Islands, home of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of southeastern Lousiana Tuesday, April 27, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert.

The good news in the Gulf oil spill is that the water and air are much warmer year round in the Gulf Coast than in Alaska. Bioremediation will proceed as fast as nature can allow. The possible bad news is that any oil or tar balls which ends up under rocks and logs or which is incorporated into marsh soils will be resuspended and sent all over the place if there is a hurricane. The really good news is that this didn't happen during a hurricane.

By the way, if you're a volunteer or local and you get the black foulness on your clothes, shoes, land, boat, pets, or whatever, there are off-the-shelf, EPA-approved bio-remediation products that you can buy in low volume that will make it go away fairly rapidly. Oil Gone Easy, a.k.a "S-200," is one of many such products.

More on The Gulf of Mexico and Other Oil Spills
How Stuff Works: How Do You Clean Up an Oil Spill?
Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: What, When, and Where. Plus: What You Can Do About It
BP Gulf Oil Spill Cheat Sheet: A Timeline of Unfortunate Events
EPA's Federal Response to BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico
Discovery News: Oil Spill Cleanup in Gulf Takes Lessons from Valdez

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