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How to clean up a major oil spill?

Updated on June 28, 2012

An environmental mess.

When a major oil spill occurs, the impact to the surrounding environment is truly devastating. Killing wildlife in the sea and on land by the thousands. Eco systems often suffer the detrimental effects of the oil slick being present in their habitat for years after the event and long after the oil spill has been cleaned up. In some cases generations of fish, sea lions, seals, shell fish and sea birds populations have yet to fully recover from the depletion and destruction of the mistake caused by mankind's demand of the substance oil, of which we use for many products.

In light of the recent oil spill it was obvious to see how such an occurrence can make such an impact on the life forms affected by it, but just how do the oil companies to clean up such a monumental mess?

Other major oil spills.

Location of spillage 
Gallons of oil spilt.
Tralhavet bay, Sweden 
1 764 000 - 29 400 000 
Sea star 
Gulf of Oman 
33 810 000 
La Coruna, Spain 
29 400 000 
Ecofisc oil field
North Sea
8 200 000
Hawaiian patriot
Northern Pacific
29 106 000
Amoco Cadiz
Portsall, France
65 562 000
Burmah Agate
Galveston bay, Texas
10 700 000
Ixtoc oil well
Gulf of Mexico
176 400 000
Trinidad and Tobago
88 200 000
Nuwruz oil field
Persian Gulf
176 400 000
Exxon Voldez
Prince william sound, Alaska
10 080 000
Khark 5
Atlantic Ocean, North of the Canary islands
19 000 000
Cervantes, West of Australia
5 880 000
Aegean sea
La Coruna, Spain
16 000 000
Shetland, Scotland
26 000 000
Rupture of oil pipeline
Uninsk, Russia
4 300 000
Cargo freighter
Block Island, off Rhode Island, Milford Haven, Wales
73 450
Diamond Grace
Tokyo Bay
13 400

Chemical dispersal agents.

These are cleaning agents, specifically designed to dissolve and disperse of oil. They are effective in the use of oil spills and commonly used.

However they do have a detrimental effects on the sea birds that may encounter it, as the dispersal agents will effectively wash the birds of the natural oils from their feathers. Leaving them less able to deal with wet weather and making it more difficult for them to swim as their buoyancy will be affected.

Inflatable floating boom tubes.

Ironically British Petroleum developed the largest weir boom system in the 1980's.

Either end of the boom is attached to a supply ship, these move steadily in conjunction with each other through the sea. Because oil floats on water, the boom is able to confine the oil and prevent it from spreading further. However this only works if the spill is dealt with extremely quickly and there is no further spillage occurring. However as this is often not the case, several attempts at using the boom is often required, targeting different areas, near the tanker or rig. Once trapped the oil is then pumped through a floating pipeline to a close tanker from one of the ships. This system can collect up to 15,000 tons of water and oil mixture per day, although this does sound like a significant amount, when we compare it to the millions of gallons that are often lost as a result of a spill, we can see why it can take weeks or months before the clear up operation is complete.

Weir skimmers.

Weir skimmers are placed just below the surface of the water and the oil flows over it and is then pumped into a reservoir. Because the level on one side has to be lower then the other, there is a pump that manages this job.

Sorption skimmers.

Sorption skimmers use chemically treated mops, rollers or belts. The special synthetic chemical material, draws the oil to the devises but not the water. As the belt, mop or roller rotates across the sea, the oil clings to the surface of the treated objects. It is then scrapped off with a blade, after being carried along in a container.

Open topped oil drums.

Open topped oil drums are placed in shallow water, with the rims skimming just below the surface of the sea, the oil then runs from the surface of the sea into the space left in the open topped oil drums, which is then pumped out and transferred elsewhere.

Machines and earth moving equipment.

Large pieces of machinery and specialist earth turning equipment are bought to the scene of the spillages on land, the oil in the earth is mixed and moved with the sand or soil effected, so as to temper it. This helps the environment to recover from the detrimental impacts caused by the spill, by diluting it and letting nature aid it's decomposition.

Drainage trenches'.

Drainage trenches' are dug to a few feet deep in an attempt to trap oil when it reaches land. As the sea carries the water and oil to the beach or nearby land, the trenches trap it and the water seeps into the ground leaving the oil floating on top.

Straw and sawdust.

These natural materials are used to absorb some of the damaged caused on areas of land. They are spread liberally on the ground until as much of the oil can then be retained by it, then they are carefully gathered and transported for dumping. This method does help somewhat with the clearance of the oil, it is however only marginally helpful as much is still left behind and for the most part, the damage has already been done. 


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    • tom hellert profile image

      tom hellert 

      8 years ago from home


      I have worked in the environmental business for over a decade- I personally and I am not alone am a bigg proponant of biological solutions to oil/gas clean ups-

      there are 100s of natural microbes that will break down oil/gas into H2O and CO2, especially in the warm waters of places like the gulf- where they can grow and thrive and exist in areas where the GOM floor was already leaking- These microbes can do the job- it still is good to use the mechanical means you layed out to give the microbes a hand


    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thank-you for your comment billy, I can't beleive it is still going on, I really do hope they stop it soon.

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      Wrenfrost great hub on all the different methodologies. As the slick grows daily the process becomes more difficult. I actually looked into Kevin Costner's methodology - at least what he invested in and seems like it has merit. Took me a while to look into it though as last thing we need is another actor meddling I thought.

    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thank-you for your comment Dobson, I agree you would assume they would have developed more effective procedures by now.

    • Dobson profile image


      8 years ago from Virginia

      I am amazed that their has not been more scientific research into a fast and effective way to deal with such a terrible event. It seems logical oil companies would want to mitigate the potential disaster in terms of their moentary cost by developing effective strategies to deal with such.

      Thanks wrenfrost for covering this timely topic.

    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thank-you faisalzaheer. :)

    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thank-you for commenting All4JESUS, dog hair, wow! :)

    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thank-you katiem2, glad you liked this hub and good to see you again my friend. :)

    • faisalzaheer profile image


      8 years ago from Karachi

      A comprehensive and well written hub on the topic. You are an inspiration! Keep it up.

    • ALL4JESUS profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      The latest is dog hair! I am serious!

      Very informative Hub - you did a great job! Wonderful layout and presentation of information. You are gifted.

      Thank you very much!

    • katiem2 profile image


      8 years ago from I'm outta here

      wrenfrost, great hub on how to clean up a major oil spill. Congrats on your 99 score! Peace :)

    • wrenfrost56 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from U.K.

      Thanks for commenting andromida, I was watching the news about the oil spill and wondered how they go about cleaning up such a thing? Many hours of reading and many weeks research later, I managed to compile this hub.

    • andromida profile image

      syras mamun 

      8 years ago

      An usual topic,not much found on Internet.I had no clue how oil spill clean up agents work before reading this hub.Thanks for the oil spills report:)


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