• Posted by: Nick

How To Clean Up An Oil Spill in a Body of Water

Oil spills are becoming ever more common and cleanup can be difficult. What can you do to help?

Oil spills in the sea aren’t just messy, they’re deadly. Every time there is an oil spill, animals are caught up in it and suffer.

The oil ruins the natural insulation that sea otters and birds have and can cause them to die from hypothermia. In addition, sea turtle babies get caught in the oil and may die. Even whales and dolphins are in danger as they inhale the oil and develop lung issues. A wide range of creatures may ingest oil in the water, unknowingly consuming the poison that will end their lives.

The big question is how to clean up an oil spill in water. It’s harder than it sounds. Oil and water don’t mix — we all know this — but how do you separate them when the oil is in the sea and spread out for miles? Here are the top 10 ways to handle it.

1. Oil Booms

Oil naturally floats atop water, since it’s lighter. This means it’s possible to collect or contain the oil spills with the use of a floating boom. When a boom is quickly deployed, it can immediately contain the oil and is quite effective. The oil boom consists of a float with a skirt handing down into the water to trap the oil.

The main reason oil booms don’t always work is that oil spreads extremely quickly atop the water, and the further it spreads, the harder it becomes to contain. Once the boom is in place, the oil stops spreading, and further measures can be taken.

2. Sorbents

In some oil spills, sorbents are used. These absorb oil while repelling water and may be useful in small spills. They are frequently used to remove the last bits of oil after a major cleanup. Since these the contain oil, they will need to be disposed of carefully.

Sorbents may be categorized as three types. Natural organic sorbents are things like feathers, sawdust, or peat moss and can absorb a large amount of oil. However, sometimes they are difficult to collect after use or may sink in the water.

Natural inorganic sorbents, such as clay or sand, are highly absorbent, but cannot be used on the surface of the water. Synthetic sorbents include polyurethane and polyethylene, among others. They are the most absorbent option.

3. Skimmers

It’s possible to skim oil from the surface of the water with a special skimmer. This involves pulling a device over the top of the water. The skimmer uses a moving medium that attracts the oil and collects it. The oil is then scraped off the media, which is usually a belt of some sort, and the media is pulled through the water again.

Skimmers are a cost-efficient and highly effective method of removing oil from the sea. They are frequently the first method used after oil booms are in place.

4. Hot Water and High-Pressure Washing

This method is not widely used, due to the possible complications. Hot water does remove oil rapidly from shorelines, but if not done carefully, it can cause further contamination. Hot water and pressure washing may also be dangerous to wildlife.

When the oil has landed on beaches and rocks, it may be washed off into the water, where skimmers or another method can remove it. Using heat ensures the oil softens and releases from the rocks.

5. In-Situ Burning

Since oil burns and sits atop the water, it can be set afire to eliminate it. The method rapidly dissipates the oil and prevents many of the adverse effects that an oil spill may have on the environment. However, it also causes other issues, such as air pollution. It also only works when the oil is a minimum of 2-3 millimetres thick, which may not be possible if it spreads too much. This method cannot be used if the sea is choppy or if there’s too much wind.

6. Gelatine Treatment (Elastomizers)

Studies show that gelatine can be sprayed over oil spills to clear up the water. The gelled oil biodegrades fairly rapidly, thanks to the bacteria that live in it. The gelatine simply encases the oil, rendering it mostly harmless, and then the bacteria biodegrade it within a few days or a month and a half, depending on the temperature. This method is not yet widely used, however.

While this method shows promise, there’s no guarantee that the encapsulated oil would not be ingested by sea creatures while waiting to break down. This is still a potential hazard, despite the method of protecting the environment.

7. Bioremediation

As mentioned in the previous section, there are bacteria that eat hydrocarbons, which oil is made of. By containing the oil spill first and then adding these bacteria to the spill, it’s possible to break the oil down rapidly. The bacteria render it harmless.

This same type of bacteria may be used on sand or soil that is employed as a sorbent to collect oil. Once the oil is collected it must still be disposed of, so by using the bacteria, it’s possible to break it all down. The current method is to collect the sand once it has been used to absorb as much oil as possible. The sand is placed in piles, and the bacteria added to help it break down.

8. Dispersants

Dispersants are chemicals that cause oil to break up into much tinier particles. These oil particles can then mix into the water. Unfortunately, this does not solve the issue of oil getting into the ocean. It then becomes extremely dangerous for ocean life. The tiny particles are easier for sea life to ingest or inhale, and it can settle on coral and sea plants, affecting even the smallest creatures in the sea.

The dispersed oil, as well as the chemicals used in dispersants, are quite toxic for fish and birds. In fact, it’s likely the dispersed oil is actually more toxic and more dangerous to sea creatures than if the oil were to remain atop the water. It’s not only animals that are in danger, though. Humans have also suffered from the toxic effects of the dispersants.

9. Manual Labour

When oil enters the water, it doesn’t stay there. It washes up along shorelines and coats beaches, rocks, and debris. The primary method of cleaning this up is sheer elbow grease. Workers gather to collect the oil and take it for processing.

This method requires using shovels and rakes to collect the contaminated sand and rocks. It can be back-breaking work as all the material is gathered into buckets and carried away. This method may be used in conjunction with the hot water and power washing method. People also take the time to pick up animals affected by the oil and clean them by hand to help them survive.

10. Natural Recovery

The final method of cleaning up after an oil spill in water is simply to let nature run its course. When humans cannot complete the job, the oil eventually clears on its own, thanks to wetlands, marshes, and grass. As oil reaches these areas, oil-consuming microbes that live there attack it. These microbes break the oil down to render it harmless to the environment.

Natural processing allows the world to recover, though it may take months. Once the oil has disappeared, the effects on wildlife may take years to resolve, particularly for endangered species.

Summary

Mankind continues to allow oil spills to endanger the natural world. While there are now many new ways to collect and dispose of the oil, it’s still a massive undertaking and no method is without risks and downsides. No matter how quickly we act, there’s still an effect on the environment, and that can be devastating.

The methods used to halt the spread of an oil slick are currently inadequate, but as more and more scientists work toward a better solution, there’s still hope. One day, we will eliminate the spills completely, and if they do occur, we can clean them safely without causing further harm to the world.

Do you want to help stop the spread of pollution via oil on water? Contact Ecospill today to learn what you can do.