Cleaning Up Oil Spills

Due to the severe and long lasting environmental impact of an oil spill, effective clean up must be executed as soon as possible immediately following the incident. Although the detrimental pollution cannot be removed entirely, it can be minimized, if prompt action is taken.

When oil is introduced into a body of water, the majority of it stays at the surface, while some of it makes its way into deeper waters. There is no way to effectively remove the oil that travels beneath the surface, but the floating pools of oil can essentially be vacuumed up. After as much oil is collected as possible, clean up forces then release chemicals into the water that serve to break down the remaining oil. Most of these chemicals are benign, but some to pose certain risks to the environment. The intentional distribution of harmful chemicals is considered less damaging than allowing the remaining oil to persist in the ocean.

If vacuuming and chemical processes prove to be largely ineffective, in some cases attempts may be made to actually burn the oil off of the surface of the water. This option is usually not incredibly effective, and is usually avoided unless it is absolutely necessary. The oil can be very difficult to ignite on the surface of the water, and if and when it is successfully ignited, the burning of the oil creates air pollutants.

Oil that makes it to the shoreline can be even more difficult to remove. In order to free it from the surfaces it clings to, it must be sprayed with high pressure hoses, and then collected by hand. Depending on how long the shore has been contaminated with oil, much of it may have already absorbed large amounts of oil that are virtually impossible to effectively remove.

Exxon received a wide amount of criticism after the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Prince Charles Sound in 1989. Although the accident was relatively small in the amount of oil spilled (some 10.8 million gallons) in comparison with other oil spills worldwide, it was considered exceptionally devastating because of the particular area in which it occurred. Due to the remote location of the incident, it was only accessible by boat or by sea, making expedited clean up efforts virtually impossible. Additionally, many groups and individuals claimed that the company did not do everything within its power to react to the accident in a timely manner. Eventually, Exxon employees with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard along with several local residents joined together to attempt to salvage the contaminated area. Since the oil was allowed to spread and deeply contaminate so much of the ocean as well as the shoreline, the incident is considered by experts to be among the most catastrophic man-made disasters to ever occur at sea.

Preventing oil spills is obviously the best way to protect our natural environment from being contaminated by them. However, when accidents do occur, it is incredibly important that they are met with a swift response and that efficient containment measures are taken.