Almost 14,000 oil spills are reported yearly despite the nation's efforts to prevent them. The spills mobilize thousands of specially trained emergency response personnel and test the current clean-up methods. Many spills are contained and cleaned up by the party responsible, but some spills require assistance from local and state agencies, and occasionally, the federal government. Under the National Contingency Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency is the lead federal response agency for inland spills, and spills in coastal waters and deepwater ports are the responsibility of U.S. Coast Guard.

The EPA tracks all reports of oil spills. It learns of spills from the responsible party, who by law is required to report the spill to the federal government, or from state and local agencies. "Once the federal government receives the report, either through the National Response Center, EPA, or another agency, it is recorded in the Emergency Response Notification System, or ERNS" (EPA).

Their course of action depends on the nature, extent and location of the spill. Recently the government and industry have tested new response techniques, such as chemical cleaning agents that offer greater success in shoreline cleaning of environmentally sensitive areas. Industry and government are also expanding the use of high rate removal methods, such as oil dispersants and burning the oil, that in some cases can remove more oil than conventional mechanical methods.

Open ocean spills may have minimal environmental effects because oil naturally dissipates and disperses. But spills that wash ashore have very serious consequences. No single spill cleanup method can instantly revive the habitat to its previous form, but some are more effective than others. Response techniques vary and sometimes natural degradation is the best method of recovery.

Major spills, particularly those that occur close to shore, may affect all life inhabiting the infected area. Because the indigenous species are so diverse the response team must include veterinarians, marine biologists, zoologists, botanists and others with specialized expertise.

With the approval of the federal on-scene coordinator, chemical-cleaning agents can be employed for cleanup. Industry research in this area is continuing to improve the effectiveness of these agents on environmentally sensitive ecosystems. "A number of advanced response mechanisms are available for controlling oil spills and minimizing their impacts on human health and the environment" (EPA). Proper selection of clean-up methods and tools is crucial to an effective recovery. Sea, water current, and wind greatly affect the ability of the clean up, so the correct method is imperative. Timely and proper use of containment and recovery equipment can minimize damage to spill-contaminated shorelines and reduce dangers to other threatened areas.

"Mechanical containment or recovery is the primary line of defense against oil spills in the United States" (EPA). Booms, barriers, and skimmers contain and collect the spilled oil by pumps. The oil is then stored until it can be disposed of properly. Mechanical containment is the safest way to collect the oil, but is a very slow process.

In the picture two boats are towing a boom that collects the oil. A skimmer at the back of the boom removes the oil from the ocean.

Shorelines are cleaned by physical methods. "Natural processes such as evaporation, oxidation, and biodegradation can start the cleanup process, but are generally too slow to provide adequate environmental recovery. Physical methods include: wiping with sorbent materials, pressure washing, and raking and bulldozing can be used to assist these natural processes" (EPA).

"Chemical and biological methods can be used in conjunction with mechanical means for containing and cleaning up oil spills. Dispersants and gelling agents are most useful in helping to keep oil from reaching shorelines and other sensitive habitats" (EPA). Shorelines, marshes, and wetlands can be cleaned with biological agents that are sensitive to the ecosystem and do not further damage the area. Research into these technologies continues to improve oil spill cleanup.

Scare tactics are used to prevent birds and animals from further harm by keeping them out of oil spill areas. Propane scare-cans, floating dummies, and helium-filled balloons are successful scarecrows, particularly in keeping away birds.

Home Background Prevention Oil Info Bibliography