Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are the main causes of oil spills?
Spills usually happen due to bad weather (hurricanes, storms, and earthquakes), intentional acts of violence (like war, vandals, or dumping) and human mistakes. The main sources of the spilled oil are usually:
1. Tankers (boats that carry oil from one location to another) crashing, breaking, or running up on land
2. Pipelines breaking or leaking (like the Alaska pipeline which pumps oil continuously)
3. Barges crashing
4. Oil Wells blowing up
5. Above and Below Ground Storage Tanks
6. Trucks carrying oil and getting into an accident
7. Production Facility (a company that takes pure (crude) oil, and changes it into other products [tar, asphalt, etc.])
8. Unknown locations and Mystery Spills (some people dump oil and other chemicals on purpose)
9. Oil Platforms (factories located in the ocean which pump oil from deep in the ocean floor)
10. Natural Seepage (this is when natural oil found in the ground leaks up into the water)
11. Lightering (moving oil from one boat to another), sometimes something breaks, or slips, and oil is lost
12. Government facilities and piers (Navy boats carry a lot of oil, and sometimes they spill some)
Q: How long does it take the ocean to recover from an oil spill?
That all depends on:
1. How much oil is spilled (the more you spill, the longer it takes to clean up the mess);
2. What type of oil it is (light oil is much easier to clean up than heavy, thick oil, and a lot of the light oil will evaporate);
3. Where the spill is (oil is easier to clean up in the middle of the ocean where itís easy to get to and canít do too much damage, whereas if the spill is in a small lake or wetlands, thereís less room, and a lot more plants and animals that can be injured);
4. What the weather is like (nice weather is of course easier to work in, storms, waves, thunders, and cold weather are much harder). Oil does several things when itís spilled. The light oils (like gasoline) tend to evaporate into the air, and if the spill is all light, the oil will disappear (into the air) by itself. Some of the oil mixes with the water forming an emulsion where everything mixes together because of the waves (think of shaking up a jar of oil and vinegar). Some of the emulsified oil (an oil/water mixture, sometimes called mousse) sinks and attaches to the rocks and sand at the bottom of the ocean or lake. Some of the oil breaks down from the sun (photo-oxidation), and some of it is eaten by the microorganisms in the water (biodegradation). Of course, some of the oil makes it to shore where it mixes with the sand, the rocks, the trees, and the marsh grass.
Q: What was the largest oil spill ever recorded?
Remember, spills are named after the boat that spilled the oil or location where the oil was spilled.
The first spill ever to be cleaned up was the Torrey Canyon, on March 18, 1967, off the coast of England.
The largest documented oil spill to date (at sea) was the Ixtoc I, which was an oil well blowout, which happened in 1979 in this hemisphere.
If youíre counting oil spills on land, then the largest amount of oil ever lost was during the Persian Gulf War.
Q: What are the different methods of cleaning up an oil spill?
Spilled oil can be removed from the water in a variety of ways. It can be skimmed off the surface (like a vacuum) with "skimmers", burned, absorbed with "sorbent" pads, dispersed with chemicals, corralled with "booms", and filtered through pumps such as an "oil/water separator" to remove the water that has mixed with the oil. The most common cleanup methods are:
1. Containment and recovery
2. Absorption (sorbents)
6. Hot and Cold pressure washing
Wave action and Photo-oxidation
Q: What is the government doing to try to prevent oil spills?
The government forms organizations like the United States Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Minerals Management Service to help prevent and cleanup oil spills.
It passes laws to prevent contamination and dumping.
It makes companies fix old equipment (like patching holes in a boat that carries oil).
It sets aside money to train people on how to clean up an oil spill and to develop new equipment.
It makes the company responsible for spilling the oil pay for cleaning it up.
Q: Are there any laws out about oil spills? If so what are they?
1. The first two laws used to try to regulate oil spills were the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Refuse Act of 1899. A court case in 1921 threw these out, and Congress began work on the Oil Pollution Control Act (1924).
2. Oil Pollution Control Act (1924), says that it is against the law to dump or spill oil into any coastal area, or area that boats travel through.
3. Clean Water Restoration Act (1966), says that it is against the law to dump or spill oil in any river or stream, and coastal area. It also says that the company who causes the spill must clean it up and pay for any damage to the environment.
4. Clean Water Act (1972), was designed to keep water clean. It says that a sheen (just a small amount of oil on water) is considered an oil spill. This act also sets aside money to help pay for the cleanup of an oil spill.
5. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) (started because of the big Exxon Valdez spill). It says that studies must be done after an oil spill to see how much damage was done (this study is called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment). The company who spilled the oil must pay for the spill cleanup. This Act also puts money aside (from taxes) to help pay for spill cleanups.
Q: What are the many costs of oil spills?
The person who causes the spill must:
Pay for the equipment to cleanup the spill.
Pay for the workers who help cleanup the spill.
Pay for the study to find out how much damage was done.
Pay, even years later, to help cleanup the environment (to clean the plants and animals that were damaged or to replace the ones that were killed).
Q: How do most oil spills affect the animals around the spill area and their habitats?
Several things can happen to animals involved in an oil spill.
1. The oil can ruin the feathers/fur of an animal (think of the pictures of the oiled bird or seal). This can damage their protection against the cold weather and water, and they can suffer from hypothermia.
2. The chemicals in the oil are toxic to marine life. Fish and shellfish filter water through their systems, and if the water is contaminated they cannot process the toxins and will die.
3. The animals breathe in the chemicals from the oil spill, and ingest (or lick/eat) the chemicals when they try to clean themselves off (like a dog or cat giving themselves a bath). This brings the toxic chemicals from the oil into their bodies.
Most plants need the sun and air to grow. If the plants are smothered by oil, their roots cannot get the nutrients they need, and they die. Many animals need these plants and shellfish to live.
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Oil Covered Rocks After a Spill
Powerwashing the Shoreline
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