Clean It Up!: A Resource Guide to Oil Spills

An oil spill is also considered a type of pollution and is most often used as a term in reference to oil spills in oceans. It may take months or, in some cases, years to clean up an oil spill. However, oil spills can also be a natural occurrence, as when natural oil seeps get inside the marine environment.

Effects on the Environment

Oil spill can have detrimental effects to our environment, damaging animals, soil and even the air. For example, the oil gets into the plumage of birds, which lowers their buoyancy in the water and hinders their capability to flee from predators and to forage for food. Other marine animals are affected negatively by oil spills, much in the same way that birds are affected by the oil. A prime example of this is with seals and sea otters. The oil coating gets caught in their furs causing them to suffer from hypothermia, due to the oil lessening the insulating properties of their fur.

Cleaning Up Oil Spills

The clean-up of an oil spill and the hopeful, ensuing recovery after an oil spill are difficult. A host of factors contribute to how successful a clean-up will be and how long it will take for a recovery from an oil spill to occur. Some factors include the water’s temperature, the kinds of beaches and shorelines affected, and the kind of oil that was involved in the oil spill. Accordingly, there are many different methods of attempting to clean up an oil spill.

Some methods that are utilized to clean up an oil spill are bioremediation, controlled burning, dispersants, watching-and-waiting, skimming, dredging, solidifying, vacuuming and using a centrifuge. Some methods like watching-and-waiting are the easiest of all because they require no human involvement and depend mainly on natural attenuation of the oil. The equipment that is used for some of these oil clean-up methods are skimmers, booms, chemicals along with biological agents, sorbents, shovels, vacuums and other types of road tools. Some equipment like shovels and other tools are used manually to clean up spilled oil on beaches, while other equipment like chemicals as well as biological agents are used to break up the spilled oil.


Over the years and through experience, experts have come up with certain, preventative measures to stop oil spills before they even start and then get out of hand. A few examples of oil-spill prevention are seafood sensory training, the SPCC program, double hulling and secondary containment. Seafood sensory training is when regulators and inspectors of seafood are actually taught how to sniff out oil-contaminated seafood, while secondary containment refers to preventing the release of either hydrocarbons or oil into the environment. Double hulling is actually constructing double hulls into vessels so that the jeopardy of a potential oil spill is reduced in severity. SPCC, which stands for the Oil Spill Prevention Containment and Countermeasures program is run by the Environmental Protection Agency,

ESI Mapping

ESI Mapping stands for Environmental Sensitivity Index Mapping. This type of mapping attempts to pick out shoreline resources before an oil spill occurs, for the reason of establishing priorities for cleaning up the oil spill and protecting the shorelines. The point of employing ESI Mapping preemptively is that the environmental impact can be lessened when an oil spill does happen. ESI Mapping generally falls into three, distinct categories: human-use resources, biological resources and shoreline type.

Oil Spill Volume Estimation

It is possible to obtain an estimate of the quantity from any oil that is spilled. This is usually obtainable through perceiving the apparent thickness of the oil along with how it looks on the surface of any body of water. The complete volume of the oil spill can also be determined via calculations if the oil spill’s surface area is known. Industry as well as the government are interested in estimating the volume of oil spills because it may aid in planning for any emergency decision-making.

Record-setting Oil Spills

Oil spills do not have to be exclusively water-based. The largest oil spill in history actually occurred in Kuwait when Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein instituted a scorched-earth policy by lighting up 700 Kuwaiti oil wells. The largest oil spill in the U.S. is the Lakeview Gusher, which happened in the early part of the 20th century in California. However, the most recent, large-scale oil spill in the U.S. was 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, which took months for the well to successfully be sealed off.

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