In February and March, there have been four oil train derailments—in Illinois, Canada, and West Virginia—spilling gallons and gallons of oil into nearby waterways and on shores.
We’ve heard the reports of cleaning crews trying their best to minimize damage to wildlife and the environment. But, when there are gallons of oil spilling and spreading quickly, how do they clean it up and what are the chances of damage being caused by the cleaning methods?
Here’s how they do it:
The weather can help to break down oil that spills into water. Oil usually floats in saltwater and freshwater, depending on the type, so one way to clean it up is to just leave it alone and let nature take its course.
However, heavy crude can sink in freshwater, mixing with sand as it sinks, which causes it to turn into tar balls. The balls aren’t a big contaminant, because they stay hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and disperse throughout the water making them less of a threat than concentrated oil slicks.
When there are concentrated oil slicks in tropical areas chemicals are typically used to help the oil break down quickly. The chemicals, also called dispersants, break apart the oil slick into little oil droplets that can easily mix with the water and be absorbed by the aquifer system.
However, the combination of dispersants mixed with the oil are more toxic to tropical coral reefs than the raw crude oil. The mix is also absorbed by the marine life thus enters the food chain.
3. Shoreline Cleanup
Another precarious situation is when an oil slick quickly spreads to a coastal area or the spill occurs near the coast. Biological agents like phosphorous and nitrogen are poured across the shoreline. The agents cultivate microorganisms, which break down the oil into natural components.
Severe spills close to aquatic habitats can hurt or kill wildlife. For example, oil can break down the water-resistant properties of a waterfowl’s feathers. Also the bird can become poisoned while licking its feathers, trying desperately to clean the oil off.