Last week, a boat in the Amazon spilled around 210,000 gallons of popcorn into a major river, making the surface of the water look a bit like the floor of a movie theater. Fortunately, it didn't take long before an oil company's emergency clean-up crew was mobilized to tackle the floating patches of popped kernels with around 30 boats, 6,500 feet of containment boom, and five skimmers as airplanes coordinated the effort overhead. But despite all the action taken to quell the spill, no one involved was ever really worried about the popular snack-food-leak getting out of control -- in fact, the whole incident was staged. Just think of it as a pop quiz of sorts.The popcorn leak was part of an elaborate simulation to test the readiness of emergencies crews in the event of a real environmental disaster. It was coordinated by the oil company Petrobras, along with the Brazilian navy and carried out in the waters of the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon river. With some oil drilling operations located deep within the Amazon rainforest, rivers provide an important means of transport, and thus are the site of a potential oil spill.
Last week's simulated leak was designed to represent a "plausible scenario" in which a mid-size ferry has run aground, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the river over the course of several days. "Major emergencies do not happen often, so it is a fantastic opportunity to exercise the team and the technology," Petrobras' regional manager Márcio Derton told the EFE.
Unsalted popcorn was chosen to represent the spilled oil for several reasons -- it floats like an oil slick and does no damage to the environment. Plus, if any of the stuff manages to elude the clean-up crews, it makes an ideal snack for fish.
In the past ten years, millions of dollars has been invested by the oil company to help protect against oil spills during transport, and such simulations ensure that if they do occur, the team will be better prepared to handle it. So, all the calories burned cleaning up the popcorn spill may one day prove to have been an invaluable exercise -- even if they are just empty calories, really.