What is an oil spill, how it usually happens and why it happens

Oil spills are usually thought of in the marine environment, as the release of petroleum into the water. However, there is more than one type of oil spill. Oils are used in many industries and they spill a lot. There are oil spills in industrial and chemical facilities, in utility plants, in assembly lines and from cars and trucks engines.

Oil spills are often hazardous, and always take an effort and special tools to clean up. An oil spill, depending on the type of oil and the location and size of the spill, can have disastrous effects on our planet, on our society and on human life as a whole.

That’s why it’s always better to focus on oil spill prevention, than on damage control (although this too is very important!).

The most common types of and reasons for oil spills

Most oil spills are caused by human error or even standard activity such as drilling into the seabed, oil refining, handling, and transport.

The most known and recent oil spill disaster, the BP oil spill, was caused by drilling into the seabed.

Accidental Spills

Accidental oil spills happen under different circumstances:

  • Handling – when oils are transferred or used in different ways.
  • Offshore drilling (marine oil spills) – everyone remembers the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (BP oil spill), with its terrible impact on the environment, including marine and human life. Spills like this happen when drilling too deep into the seabed or in the wrong place, where pressure from the earth’s crust causes oil to erupt in millions of gallons into the water (and surface due to its buoyancy).
  • Storage – oil and oil products can be stored in varied facilities, including underground or aboveground tanks (USTs and/or ASTs); such containers (especially the underground or USTs) might leak over time, causing oil spills that are hard to spot at first, difficult to clean up and very hazardous to the environment.
  • Transportation – oil is transported all over the globe daily in many vessels on the ground (trucks, trains) and on water (tankers). When a vessel ruptures, an oil spill occurs.  Depending on the vessel and the amount of oil it carries, as well on the surface where it happens (ground or water), the oil spill can be large (hundreds and even, millions of gallons of oil), or smaller. Perhaps the best-known example of a massive spill due to ship failure is the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan shoreline in late 1980’s– residues from this oil spill still affect the planet today!
  • Routine maintenance – cleaning of ships or tanker trucks may release oil into navigable waters and roads. While these spills are usually small and may seem insignificant, when you add up the amount of oil-carrying ships and other vessels undergoing routine maintenance, you can get too large amounts of oil spilled into the environment.
  • Road runoff – the same as with maintenance, vehicles (all vehicles) leak small amounts of oil (or larger amounts when they break down). Here too, especially in places with many very busy roads, these small amounts add up quickly and affect the environment.

Intentional Oil Spills

Despite their nature, intentional oil discharges are not always caused by bad intentions. Their impact, though, is as harmful as the accidental spills. Intentional spills usually happen:

  • Indirectly through the burning of fuels, including vehicle emissions; This is why many cities, especially in Europe, now have a ban on specific car engines entering the city at certain times.
  • Through drains or in the sewer system. Regular activities, even such as changing car oil, can result in an oil spill if the old oil is simply dumped into a drain.

 

How oil spills are dealt with after they happen

Now that we know how most oil spills happen, let’s see how they are usually dealt with, after they occur. Just as there are many types of oil spills, there are also many methods for oil spill cleanup and oil spill response. The cleanup usually depends on the type of spill, on the environment in which it happens and the size of the spill. In this guide, we will not cover all of the oil spill cleanup methods in depth, but we will list some of the most common ways to clean up oil spills.

  • Oil BoomsOil booms are one of the most well-known methods for cleaning up and controlling oil spills. They’re also one of the most commonly used methods in oil spill response. Different types, shapes, and sizes of oil booms are designed to be used in various areas where an oil spill might happen. 
  • Burning In-situ – Literally translated into “burning on site”, this method involves burning the oil where the spill occurred. This method, if and when used, needs to be applied very fast, immediately after the spill begins, in order to contain it and limit its spreading. While this may be an effective oil spill containment method, it is very harmful to the environment, due to toxic fumes from the oil burning. The oil contains particles that can be devastating to all life forms, especially in a marine environment and if it’s not bad enough that the oil itself is polluting the water when it is burned these particles are emitted into the air and pollute the air as well.
  • Oil Absorbents – Oil absorbents are types of sponges and other porous materials, which are lined on the surface of the oil spill area. These products clean up the spill by literally absorbing the oil from the surface it spread on. Having oil absorbents in stock is important for rapid spill response.
  • Granular Absorbent – is usually used for in-land spills. The most common and inexpensive one is Clay, also called Kitty Litter.  The primary benefit in using kitty litter is its inexpensive price tag, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice.
  • Fertilizer dispensing – especially for oil spills on water and in a marine environment, this type of cleanup involves fertilizers that hasten the development of specific microorganisms, which assist in dispersing the spill by “eating into it”. This process, despite the word “hasten” is not fast, yet it is highly recommended (in combination with other methods), as it’s more natural and eco-friendly.
  • Oil Skimming – This type of oil spill response is pretty self-explanatory. It usually involves using specific and specialized tools to collect and remove oil from the water surface. This method is usually used on water as it is easier to skim and remove the oil from a liquid surface than from a solid surface. This method, however, will only work for lighter oils.
  • Pressurized hot water – This method is usually employed in spill containment in marine environments and is used in combination with the oil skimming method mentioned above. Using very high pressure and force, hot water is used to “push” the spill back into the water, prevent it from reaching shores and facilitate the skimming.
  • Manual removal – This method is ineffective in large spills clean up but is usually employed to contain spills and prevent them from polluting more surfaces. Especially in coastal areas prone to spills, people will often assist in the cleanup and prevention of oil spills, with sheer elbow grease. They will use shovels, spades and any other tools to remove affected and polluted earth and to isolate the spill as best they can.
  • Technology and heavy machinery – a direct extension of manual removal, cranes, tractors and other heavy machinery are sometimes used to assist in the oil spill containment and cleanup. The downside of this method is that the machinery itself can emit oils into the environment and the removal of large amounts of dirt changes the topography and the entire ecosystem where the spill happens.  
  • Let nature run its course – They say time heals all wounds. This goes for our planet as well in some cases. Although a very slow cleanup process, sun, wind, weather conditions and tides all help the planet clean itself in due time because oil particles evaporate. This may be the cheapest and most natural way to clean up oil spills, but it is also the slowest and therefore the least optimal, as the damage a spill causes spreads faster than the cleanup and is disastrous.

There are more methods for oil spill management and cleaning, and more often than not, some of those methods need to be utilized in combination to promote the best and fastest cleanup.

Oil spill prevention – why it is important to prevent them before they happen

The common thread throughout the oils spill cleanup methods we listed above, is that they are mostly slow, thereby inefficient in preventing the damage from the oil to the environment until the spill is cleaned; They are costly, in manpower, materials, and tools; They often involve causing more or other damage to the planet in order to clean up the spill faster, essentially forcing oil spill response teams to choose between two evils.

The best way to prevent and clean up oil spills is with highly absorbent materials, which are also natural and do not harm the environment just the same as (if not more than) the spill itself. Innovation in this field is constant and we’re always looking at new ways to clean up oil spills faster, more efficiently and without causing further harm to the environment.

Still, it stands to reason that focusing on oil spill prevention is the better and smarter way to go in the oil and utilities industry and in general. When you can effectively prevent oil spills, you have less cleanup (if any) to do and you can save costs on cleanup.

Oil spill prevention methods

Oil spill prevention begins with awareness and continues with training, planning ahead and choosing the right tools and materials for the job.

  • Concrete berms – holds oil inside in case of sa pill, but often create “a pool” of “contaminated water” that needs to be pumped out;
  • Composite walls – the idea is the same as with berms – to contain oil in case of a spill. Composites are a rather expensive solution and do not offer good drivability;
  • Earthen berms – a cheaper version of concrete berms. Subject to water and wind erosion;
  • Plastic trays – contain oils or chemicals in case of a spill. Trays can be bulky and expensive.

All these methods do not offer oil absorbency. Spilled oil needs to be pumped out – meaning more work and more money spent. 

In our next articles we will discuss more in depth the various oil spill prevention methods, as well as oil spill cleanup methods and products. Make sure you follow our blog (and our social media channels) to be updated when we post new articles.