Ocean Oil Spills

Oil spills are simply a lose-lose situation for everyone. The marine animals, the responsible company, and of course the environment are all the victims of the unfortunate incidents. A major oil spill can also have a significant impact on the economy.

An oil spill is a type of pollution technically defined as the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, due to human error. Most spills take months and sometimes even years to clean up, with irreversible damage done in the interim.

On March 24th, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, resulting in a catastrophic oil spill. 10.8 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the Prince William Sound, a natural habitat for several forms of wildlife, including sea otters, seals, sea birds, and salmon. Many fish and animals perished as a direct result of the spill. Exxon was criticized for their slow response time in dealing with the accident. Eventually, thanks to hundreds of locals who volunteered to help along with the US Coast Guard, the accident was cleaned up as best as it could be. To this day, it is estimated that around 26,000 gallons of oil still remain in the soil of the contaminated coastline.

This is just one example of the devastating consequences that an oil spill can have. Not only to the environment itself, but also to the innocent animals that inhabit it. Most estimates put the total loss of animals at well over 500,000. Even 22 orcas (killer whales) reportedly perished due to the accident. The oil spill destroyed the natural balance of things in the ecosystem. The extreme loss of fish made food scarce for surviving carnivorous animals. The food that could still be found was likely to be contaminated.

Sea birds are among the animals most significantly impacted by oil spills. When exposed to oil, it penetrates the structure of their feathers, severely hindering their ability to remain insulated. It also renders them less buoyant and unable to efficiently fly, making them likely to drown or fall victim to predators.

We have since learned that the long term effects of an oil spill last much longer than previously though. Experts say that some shoreline habitats may take at least 30 years to fully recover from the incident. The lighter compounds in crude oil, such as toluene and benzene are highly toxic, yet they evaporate rather quickly. However, the heavier compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (also known as PAHs) are the ones that cause the most severe damage. Even though they possess a relatively lower amount of toxicity than the lighter fractions, they take significantly longer to dissipate.

Measures have since been taken to prevent such a large scale disaster from happening again, but as long as large amounts of oil are being transported across oceans, there will always be a risk of environmental damage, and our natural environment will always be in danger. Decreasing our nation’s dependency on oil may be the only way to reduce the risk of future incidents.