What Does an Oil Spill Cleanup Look Like?

Oil spills are bad news. The list of potential harmful environmental effects is extensive, and includes things like:

  • Ecological changes (usually caused by the loss of a species that serves an important function within an ecological community),
  • Chemical toxicity (occurs when the toxic lighter chemical components in oil are absorbed into tissues, cells, and organs of affected organisms),
  • Coating mammals and birds with layers of oil, and
  • Full-blown physical smothering (when a creature’s essential feeding, thermoregulatory, and respiratory abilities are smothered by heavy oils).

There’s an economic impact that warrants consideration as well. Coastal cities are often dependent on tourism and fishing for survival. Oil-covered beaches and oil-contaminated water can completely destroy these industries, and devastate local communities in the process. There’s no doubt that oil spills should be avoided at all costs, but though there has been a dramatic decrease in reported spills since 1989, they continue to be a problem.

oil spill cleanup taking place on shoreline

As long as we depend on oil for energy, we will certainly continue to hear about oil spills – after all, people make mistakes and accidents are bound to happen. This is why responding to and cleaning up after an oil spill is so critical; an efficient oil spill cleanup can significantly curtail most harmful effects.

So what does an oil spill cleanup look like? Oil spills can actually vary quite a bit – geographic locations, weather conditions, and different oil types are factors – but there are four primary response methods.

  1. According to the EPA, “Mechanical containment or recovery is the primary line of defense against oil spills in the United States.” If response personnel can get to a spill quickly, they can use buoyant booms with a skirt that hangs underneath to keep the spill from spreading. Once the spill is contained, response personnel can utilize skimmers to capture oil from the surface of the water, as well as sorbent materials. Once the oil is collected, it will be stored until a safe and compliant disposal solution can be found.
  2. Dispersants, once introduced into an oil spill, abate the surface tension that would otherwise keep oil and water from mixing. This allows for rapid dilution and absorption into the aquatic system, but there’s some cause for concern; an Israeli study in 2007 reported that the blending of broken-down oil and dispersants is more toxic to marine life systems than raw crude oil.
  3. Biological agents can be used when an oil spill has reached a shoreline. Fertilizing nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen encourage microorganisms to grow, which then aid in the breakdown of oil into natural elements like carbon dioxides or fatty acids.
  4. Leave the spill alone. In the case of light oil spills in areas with no coastal region pollution risk, sometimes the most sensible method is to allow nature to do the work instead. The sun, wind, currents and wave movements do a remarkable job of evaporating and dispersing light oils.

When spilled oil reaches shores, it’s crucial that cleanup happens there, too. Part of this process occurs naturally via biodegradation, evaporation, and oxidation, but it’s necessary to assist in these efforts, as natural processes are notoriously slow moving. Response personnel can use pressure washers, bulldozers, rakes, and sorbent materials to expedite remediation efforts. Personnel might also use scare-tactic mechanisms, such as balloons or scare-cans, to frighten away birds and keep them out of the danger zone.


Is there an oil spill cleanup or environmental remediation job you could use some help with? We’d love to talk to you about it. Give us a call today at (888) 995-2143 or click here to email us.