7 Major Oil Spill Cleanup Methods

Since the first massive oil spill, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in the Gulf of Alaska, US. Various oil spill cleanup methods have been applied to bring the nature of the water and its inhabitants back to where they suppose to be.

And as the year goes by with more money and research going into oil spill cleanup methods even in developing new and more efficient oil spill cleanup methods, various areas both on the land and sea are being put into consideration in developing more efficient oil spill cleanup methods.

And with the help of better oil cleanup methods than the oil spill cleanup methods present earlier, we can say that we are reaching a climax of totally freely our water bodies and lands of oil.

There is a reason they say oil and water don’t mix, but neither does oil and anything else. Oil is mastery for modern post-industrial revolution society.

We run our engines, heat, and power our homes with it, and even all the precautions and cost involved, sometimes we accidentally spill it everywhere and these spills, if not handled appropriately, can be in the environment for a very long time even to decades.

The world uses nearly countless amounts of oil every year in one form to another. The reliance on fossils fuels as we see today has its host of long-term environmental problems, but when you have an oil spill, you create another world of issues.

An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially marine areas, due to human activity, and is a form of pollution.

An oil spill can be on land or the ocean surface and though an oil spill is mostly an accident it’s sad to say that it can also be deliberate which would be mostly as an act of war.

The term is usually applied to marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters, but spills may also occur on land. Oil spills can happen for a variety of reasons, from careless mistakes of equipment breaking down to natural disasters like hurricanes.

Millions of oil spills occur in the world every year. Most of them are small compared to the big ones that make the news, often spilling less than one barrel of oil

Oil spills may be due to releases of crude oil from tankers, offshore platforms, drilling rigs, and wells, as well as spills of refined petroleum products (such as gasoline, diesel) and their by-products, and even due to exploration activities, heavier fuels used by large ships such as bunker fuel, or the spill of any oily refuse or waste oil. The oil spill is mostly caused by human activities.

After a spill since oil is less dense than water, it typically floats on the surface of the water. It doesn’t just stay there some big glob, though. What usually happens is that the oil will rapidly spread out over the surface of the water until it becomes a thin layer of oil known as an oil slick.

Then, it keeps spreading out until it forms a super thin layer called a sheen. But that thin layer of oil can be a big problem.

Oil spills affect the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of both water and land. They are potentially harmful to the environment, marine life and even humans.

The oil spill also affects the survival of aquatic plants and animals. In plants, the spilt oil floats on top of the water which reduces penetration of sunlight. Thus, it restricts the process of photosynthesis of marine plants and phytoplankton which is a producer consequently affecting the marine food chain.

For animals, oil forms a thick black layer above the water. The viscosity of water also increases, which restricts the locomotion of organisms in the water.

The spilled oil can also coat the body of the aquatic animals, which reduces the heat insulation capacity and leads to hypothermia, temperature decreases.

Example: seal, the killer whale. Adult fish can experience fin erosion when exposed to oil, as well as reduced growth rates and enlarged livers.

It can also hinder their reproduction. Even if they can successfully make eggs, the oil can negatively impact the eggs and larval survival.

They can also affect the feathers of birds during submerging penetrating the structure of the plumage of birds and impairs the ability of the bird to fly and escape from predators.

They affect the fur of mammals, also reducing their insulating ability, and making them more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water. And if any of these animals try to clean themselves, they might ingest some of that oil.

Oil spill Cleanup and recovery methods are difficult and depend on many factors, including the type of oil spilt, the temperature of the water (affecting evaporation and biodegradation), and the type of shorelines and beaches involved. Spills may take weeks, months or even years to clean up.

Oil spills can have disastrous consequences for society: economically, environmentally, and socially.

As a result, oil spill accidents have initiated intense media attention and political uproar, bringing many together in a political struggle concerning government response to oil spills and what actions can prevent them from happening.

Despite substantial national and international policy improvements on preventing oil spills adopted in recent decades, large oil spills keep occurring.

What is Oil Spill Cleanup?

Oil spill cleanup comprises the efforts made for an oil spill to be completely and efficiently removed from either the water or land surface. Though this is an ideal notion currently, efforts are still made towards its effectiveness.

Oil Spill Cleanup Methods

oil spill cleanup methods are methods adopted or use for the cleanup of land and water bodies. in the case of oil spill cleanup methods, we can’t say that one fits all because they differ in their time of application size and location of the oil spill.

Oil spill cleanup methods involve a lot of tools, including floating barriers called booms, chemical dispersants and biological agents, and skimmers.

The reality of oil spill cleanup is that collecting and removing the oil is a challenging, time-sensitive, and often ineffective process even with favourable conditions.

In addition to all the time, effort, and negative effects of the spill, some cleanup methods can mess with marine life even worse than the oil spill itself.

That’s why making sure that as few oil spills happen as possible should always be the goal. Cleaning methods depend on factors such as the time of the spill, type of oil, weather conditions and location.

It’s good to know that even though nothing is done to clean up the oil spill, the oil sill eventually breakdown naturally due to the sun, weather and wave actions but this would take a very long time.

Light oil disperses faster than heavier ones. When oil does break down, it mixes with water, along with other particles such as sand, to form tarballs. These tarballs are scattered across a wide area and are not that harmful to the environment.

So, even if we did not clean up oil spills, nature has its course of action for their clean-up, but it will take a lot of time. Some of the oil spill cleanup methods include:

  • Oil Booms
  • Skimming
  • Sorbents
  • Burning In-situ
  • The Use of Dispersants
  • Biological Agents 
  • Hot Water or High-Pressure Washing

1. Oil Booms

The oil boom is one of the oil spill cleanup methods and it’s a type of oil spill response equipment used to protect shoreline or sensitive areas such as coastal marshes or sea bird nesting areas by preventing the oil spill from spreading further or reaching shorelines.

A boom is a floating physical barrier placed on the water to contain, exclude, deflect or redirect oil. They are mostly in the form of inflated tubes. They are used to surround and direct the oil spill away from vulnerable wildlife.

It prevents oil movement by working at or near the surface level where the oil floats. The length of the boom is measured in feet and the height of inches.

Booms typically comes in high visibility colours like yellow, white and orange. Several types of booms may be used depending on the type of oil, weather conditions, the amount and location of the oil spill.

Common Parts of Oil Boom

  • Floatation Device: This keeps the boom at the surface level and traps floating oil.
  • Freeboard: This sits above water keeping oil from washing over the top.
  • Skirt: This prevents currents from pouring oil under the boom.
  • Ballast: This is the weight at the bottom of the skirt keeping boom hanging vertically.
  • The Tension Line or Strength Member: These are the cables, chains or lines of the boom.

Common Types of Oil Boom

  • Fence Boom: used when oil is moving across the surface of the water.
  • Curtain Boom: the opposite of fence boom with a shorter freeboard and a longer shirt and it’s used when the water currents are stronger.
  • Inflatable or containment Boom: has air-filled tubes that float keeping oil from going over the boom during wave action. It also includes water-filled tubes that keep the water balanced on the water surface.
  • Sorbent Boom: made of soft material soaking oil within the boom itself. It’s effective in areas of light winds and currents.
  • Fire Boom: this is made of material that can withstand high heat generated by burning oil
  • Snare Boom: is placed along shorelines to collect the oil that washes at the shore.

Limitations to the Effectiveness of a Boom

  • Splash over from the wind
  • Breaking Waves
  • Changing tides
  • Shifting currents

Oil Boom is still the best tool for collecting and removing oil or preventing it from impacting shoreline habitat.

2. Skimming

Skimming is one of the oil spill cleanup methods and it involves the use of various tools and equipment to physically separate the oil from the water and place the oil from the water and place the oil into collection tanks. Oil Skimmers are used to take oil off the water in an industrial site or marine sites like oceans, seas, lakes and land.

In industrial situations, skimmers store the collected oil right there in the sump or in the drain but in marine situations, you would have to collect them in a container onboard your boat or close to the mariner, very close to the shore.

Skimmers are best used on calm waters, and not when there are high winds or stormy seas.

When oil is spilled, you will have to react very quickly. First, contain the spill by the use of an oil boom or booms, then you will have to collect or pull off the oil using an oil skimmer.

There are different sizes of skimmers from a small skimmer to a very large skimmer which can take up to 30 cubic meters an hour of oil off water, it depends on the pump and your transportation to the containment.

Types of Oil Skimmers

There are different types of skimmers. some of them include:

  • Drum Skimmer: This is the best skimmer we can find, it takes 95% oil and 5% water and it’s very simple to use. It’s got floating rollers that take the oil off the water and act as floatation. The drum skimmer tends to be the go-to-all purpose.
  • Weir Skimmer: This is good in a big wave situation but it tends to take a bit more water on board but still a good skimmer.

3. Sorbents

Sorbents are one of the oil spill cleanup methods and they are a kind of sponge that can be placed over the oil spill surface to soak up liquids through their pores or adsorbed on the surface of the material the oil from the surface of the water.

Sorbents soak up the oil while adsorbers take up the oil on the surface of the materials. Some of the materials used as oil sorbents include hay, peat moss, straw or vermiculite.

Sorbents and adsorbers can be in powdered or solid form. When sorbents are used, the oil can be recovered preventing wastage of oil and further pollution. They are the most effective in cleaning up small spills.

But, they have some drawbacks. Sorbents become 3 to 15 times heavier than their present weight making them have a risk of the sinking which can be difficult to retrieve and can pose a risk to aquatic life at the bottom of the ocean, therefore, the sorbents must be efficiently retrieved.

4. Burning In-situ

Another method that is used to clean up an oil spill is burning in-situ. This method involves the controlled burning off of the oil on the oil spill site.

The burning needs to be done promptly before the oil spill spreads to a larger area. In-situ burning can be able to remove up to 98% of an oil spill and the thickness of the oil has to be above 3mm on the water surface for the in-situ burning to go on effectively.

This method has a big disadvantage though, as the burning of the oil releases toxic gases and particles which can cause significant damage to the environment. Burning in-situ is relatively for fresh spills before the oil spreads to a larger area and decreases in thickness.

5. The use of Dispersants

The use of dispersants is one of the oil spill cleanup methods and in this method, special fertilisers or chemical dispersants are used to break the oil and allow it to mix with water faster. They also hasten the growth of micro-organisms that diffuse the components of the oil.

The dispersants are most effective within a couple of hours of the initial spill. When oil is spilled at sea or lake, the oil floats to the surface and creates an oil sleek.

Following the spill, dispersants can be sprayed onto the surface of the oil slick by boats or aircraft. Through wave action, the oil is then dispersed to the upper regions of the water columns.

Due to its lower density, the oil floats to the surface and creates an oil sleek. Oil dispersants contain surface-active molecules known as surfactants. When the dispersants are added to the oil, the surfactants diffuse into the oil sleek and rapidly migrate to the oil-water interface.

The surfactants reduce the interfacial tension between the oil and water. Their presence at the interface reduces the energy required to disperse the oil into the water. With wave action, the oil is broken into tiny droplets of oil and water that disperse through the upper regions of the water column.

This increases the surface area of the oil, allowing more exposure to the elements and increasing the speed of evaporation of the oil.

Microorganisms consume the oil droplets and dispersants producing natural by-products commonly found in the aquatic environment. This process occurs at a faster rate when the oil is broken into smaller droplets by the dispersants.

Dispersants are not used for all oil spills, as the actual chemicals used can pose a problem to some marine life and coral reefs

6. Biological Agents

The use of biological agents is one of the oil spill cleanup methods. Since the process of naturally breaking down oil takes a long time, varying from weeks to years, humans had to find a solution to get rid of the huge oil leaks in the world’s oceans more efficiently and faster.

Many of the solutions humans have figured out are not environmentally friendly while others are. Biological agents are an environmentally safe option to aid the ocean and reduce pollution caused by oil leakage. Biological agents effectively clean oil spills and help keep wildlife sustainable.

This is because when an oil spill occurs next to wildlife, the safest and least damaging method to clean the water would be using biological agents and this is a relatively natural method.

Bacteria are introduced to the spill where it starts a process called biodegradation and fertilising agents that encourage the bacteria to grow are also added.

After it is added, the bacteria then starts to break down the oil into natural compounds that can be absorbed into the ground.

That means that the compound oil split up and formed into a chemical substance produced by a living organism and unlike oil, this naturally produced substance can be absorbed by the environment.

This removes the oil and keeps wildlife pure from damaging liquids like oil leaks.

Advantages of Biological Agents

  • It is a natural method of accelerating the biodegradation of oil without damaging the surrounding environment.
  • Once the fitting agent is found, applying the agents to the oil spill can be very cost-effective in comparison to other methods.
  • Biological agents don’t affect the growth of surrounding wildlife, but only deal with the oil and breaking down of them.

Disadvantages of Biological Agents

  • You cannot control biological agents and what crops they manage. They can target other pests than the one initially targeted scientists.
  • The process of finding the proper biological agents and creating a system can be very costly.
  • Although they accelerate the biodegradation process, they can take many years to fully decompose the oil.

7. Hot Water and High-Pressure Washing

Another method that is one of the oil spill cleanup methods is using hot water with a lot of pressure. This is mainly used for the clean-up of oil spills on land and shorelines.

Lands and shorelines are cleaned using hot water with a huge force that forces oil back into the water and from the water, it is cleaned with other various techniques.


Editor at EnvironmentGo! | providenceamaechi0@gmail.com | + posts

A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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