The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska is the first major oil spill I can remember, and the images of the recovery efforts have stuck with me for 26 years. The volunteers struggling to scrub seabirds and marine mammals clean of crude. The response teams spraying down rocks with hoses.
When an oil pipeline ruptured in California last week, soaking the Santa Barbara shoreline in up to 105,000 gallons of oil, the images struck me once again, but for a different reason. While the resolution of the photographs and video footage has improved, the images are otherwise the same as those from 1989. People with fire hoses and buckets. Volunteers scrubbing down birds with detergent. I didn’t expect oil spills to change, but I had hoped that our response would have progressed by now, especially after so much practice. So, have we gotten any better at cleaning up oil in a quarter-century?
The answer is yes, sort of. Let’s start with the good news.
“The technologies have improved,” says Thomas Azwell, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkley’s College of Natural Resources. He cites in situ burning as an example. Rather than attempting to chemically disperse or recover oil released into the ocean, responders sometimes place plastic booms around the spill and initiate a controlled burn. In the era of the Exxon Valdez, however, it wasn’t that controlled. Workers basically threw a Molotov cocktail into the oil and hoped for the best. Often the booms themselves caught fire as the blaze spread beyond control. Today we have more fire-resistant booms and ignite the burn more precisely with a handheld device or one lowered from a helicopter.
Dispersants have also improved, meaning the chemicals are better at breaking up the oil and spreading it throughout the water. But here’s where things get tricky. Dispersants are an extremely controversial remediation technique, and we don’t know when or whether to use them. The urgency surrounding oil spills has prevented scientists from developing evidence-based guidelines to aid responders. In the absence of good science, the use of dispersants is little more than a trend, coming and going like bell bottoms or facial hair.
“In the 1970s, especially in Europe, dispersants were popular,” says Alexander Horne, an emeritus professor of environmental engineering and Azwell’s colleague at Berkeley. “They were basically like detergents, and detergents worked on birds, so why not use them in the ocean?”
There are lots of reasons not to use them, which Horne points out. Detergents have their own form of toxicity. It’s not so dangerous for animals with waterproof skin, but what about oyster larvae or fish? Dispersants can damage these creatures, just like oil can. “Eventually, dispersants became unfashionable, and they stopped using them,” says Horne.
Ever since the 87-day Gulf spill brought dispersants back into common use in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working to make less toxic formulas. So far, progress has been very slow. Many oil spills will happen before they’re ready for use.
Greening dispersants is just one of many ideas to improve our spill response. Ideas are good, but they are not an end in themselves. Do a simple web search for "oil spill remediation research," and you’ll find dozens of pages about materials, chemicals, microbes, and techniques to combat these disasters. But without a system to nurture these ideas and then, when proven, to incorporate them into response protocols, they remain just ideas. That’s the main reason we’re still using buckets and shovels and toxic dispersants.
Many of these spills come from mistakes we shouldn’t be making.
“We need funding to evaluate the innovations we have,” says Azwell. “We need a lab to test new ideas for efficacy, a lab for toxicity testing, and a place to demonstrate successful innovations to incident commanders, who manage oil spill response.”
To be fair, a few innovations are making their way onto oil-soaked beaches. In Santa Barbara, for example, crews will test a machine designed to wash the oil off sand so it can stay on the beach rather than being shipped off to a landfill. Since the rocky beaches at the site are inaccessible to much heavy machinery, these portable machines could significantly accelerate the cleanup. But that’s just one idea to make it beyond the proverbial drawing board, where many more are stuck.
The final bit of badly needed research, which may be more important than any machine or chemical, is figuring out how to optimize our investments. In some cases, spraying dispersants and lighting fires may be counterproductive. In waters populated by oil-eating microbes, it might be better to hold our fire, so to speak.
“If I were in charge of BP’s billions, I’d spend it on shoreline protection and enhancement,” says Horne. “Let’s make rare species common, so that if we lose some in an oil spill, it’s less of an emergency.”
Azwell recalls a conversation he had with an oil spill incident commander, who told him, “The response can do more damage than doing nothing at all. Often nature is better at remediation than anything we can do.”
Don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not suggesting we should redirect those federal dollars to fossil-fuel subsidies or road-building. Rather, we could spend them in ways that support the species at risk and prevent the spill in the first place.
“Many of these spills come from mistakes we shouldn’t be making,” Horne continues. “In the Gulf spill, there was a casing failure. Come on, guys. That’s simple engineering.”
He’s right. For all the technology, the causes of oil spills are remarkably simple. I suppose it’s unsurprising that our go-to solutions—buckets, shovels, and detergent—are equally simple. The key in both circumstances is getting the simple things right. We still haven’t learned how to do that.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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