As I begin to write this introduction, there are currently 3 major oil spill clean-ups underway, one of which has been ongoing for nearly 4000 days! The total spillage for all three (minimum) is currently 540 tonnes! Even though these spills are at sea and not on land, as the title suggests, it is evident that no matter how far we’ve come in terms of technology and safeguarding measures, oil spills still happen and need to be controlled quickly before they wreak havoc on the ecosystem!
What is an oil spill?
Whenever a sealed container or vessel, which is designed for safely storing or transporting liquid petroleum hydrocarbons, can no longer hold its load and releases this into the immediate environment it is known as an oil spill.
What causes oil spills?
When you think of an oil spill, most people imagine a ship carrying thousands of gallons of oil which has leaked into the ocean or sea. Although this can be a regular yet unfortunate occurrence, it isn’t the only reason spills happen. Other causes include:
- Leaks -From leaking storage tanks and pipelines to leaks from vessels and refineries oil spills can occur anywhere that oil is stored or contained and at any time, with some leaks being caused by unforeseen factors as well as poor maintenance reasons.
- Vessel Collisions – In December 2014, OT Southern Star 7 had a collision with a cargo vessel resulting in a marine oil spill of 300 tonnes! It goes to show that simply maintaining your vessels is not always going to avoid a spill.
- Natural Disasters -Both Napocor and Taylor Energy Wells’ oil spills, which have occurred in the last ten years, were both caused by typhoons and hurricanes respectively. Proving that regular maintenance and watching out for other traffic on the waves is still no guarantee against a spill.
- Traffic Accidents With Tankers – On land, there are further factors to watch out for! Similar to vessels having collisions at sea, traffic accidents with tankers or just tankers having accidents on their own can happen just as easily and out of the blue.
- Train Derailments – Another area where oil spills have been known to occur is with rail transport. Train derailments can be very serious spills often happening in hard to access locations making spill treatments almost impossible!
The examples above are a list of common oil spill causes, but it still highlights the many different scenarios where spills are likely to happen.
What are the consequences of oil spills on land?
There is a very good reason why oil isn’t used for watering crops and grassland. It prevents the absorption of water into the soil which essentially stifles the plants of and kills them.
As well as hindering the growth of plant life, oil can also journey into surface water and groundwater killing fishes and the river ecosystem. The water contamination can affect humans with the potential closure of public water supplies.
The results of an oil spill are usually visible straight away but, in some cases, the effects of a land oil spill can take a long time to show. This is usually the case with contaminated groundwater. Over time, the contamination can have a knock on effect which creates a slow-developing catastrophe.
Cost Of Land Spill Clean-Ups
With chemical spills, such as oil and fuel spills, the onus is on the polluter to pay for any costs associated with the clean-up, even where the pollution has been caused by vandalism. In the UK, you can find yourself being treated differently depending on whether you’re located in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
In England, you can also be charged for:
- Government’s time and any equipment they’ve used
- Ongoing costs of clean-ups through reoccurrence prevention and legal requirements
- Fines and/or costs applied through criminal and civil courts
- Higher insurance costs
- Oil loss
- Business reputation may suffer
In Scotland, you could face imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the spill.
Land Oil Spill Clean-Up Techniques
With land oil spills, depending on where the spill occurs, varied techniques must be used to clean up the oil. Below is a description of the clean-up techniques used for different areas of land affected.
When a spill occurs, being prepared allows you to think and act quickly which can save you a lot of time, effort and money. An oil spill response company may need to be called out to complete the clean-up for you. When you do choose an oil spill cleaning specialist, make sure they’re a reputable company as any mistakes with clean-ups may come back on you.
If it’s possible, place a leaking oil container into a larger container (an overdrum) which isn’t damaged. An overdrum is a large drum usually made of plastic. It is chemically resistant and should hold the contents of your leaking container preventing further spillage. It can also be used to store spilt oil for a short period of time.
Note* Sometimes, just a simple method can make a massive difference. For example, if you have a leak which is at the bottom of your oil drum or barrel, try turning the barrel upside down so the hole is now at the top and the leak should stop. This is a great temporary measure which can give you valuable time to find a suitable replacement.
Switching off the valves on pipework can give you much more control of the chemicals which have been spilt and allow you to keep on top of the oil spill. Another technique which usually works well, with switching off the valves on pipework, is containing the spill as close to the source as possible. The more contained the spill the easier it is to manage and clean.
To help limit the size of the spill, transfer leaking materials into an undamaged container. You can use sorbents to limit the spread of the spill. You need to choose the correct sorbent for the materials you store and correctly dispose of the sorbents after use, as they may be hazardous to the environment.
Do your best to prevent the spill reaching drainage systems and unmade ground as the containment will be easier and cheaper to clean.
Just like a first aid kit, your pollution control kit (known as a spill kit) should be fully stocked. It should be easily and quickly accessible in the event of an oil spill emergency. Some of your spill kit equipment should be tested and maintained regularly to ensure they are working correctly.
- Personal protective Equipment (PPE)
- Drain Mats
- Leak Sealing Putty
- Undamaged Container
- Barrier Booms
- Sorbent Booms
- Portable Tanks
Other items which may be useful but are purely for improvisation purposes include:
- Sandbags and loose sand
- Wooden planks and tarpaulin (to create a boom in a river)
- Straw bales used as a boom or sorbent
- A spade or shovel for spreading sand or earth for small spills
- A car foot well mat or polythene sheet weighted with sand to be used as a drain mat.
For an excellent guide to what you should do in the event of a chemical spill go to the government website.
If you have an oil spill and it is on a grassland area then you’ll need to react quickly to avoid leakage to surface water or groundwater. Another priority is to restore the soil to a productive state as quickly as possible.
Cleaning up an oil spill on grassland can be helped by using berms and trenches. Always make sure that oil is contained so it can’t soak into the soil.
If there is no danger to the water table, flooding the area with water can help float the oil to the surface (in most cases, oil is less dense than water) where it can be absorbed or sucked up with a vacuum.
Other techniques for removing oil spills from grassland include bio-remediation, in-situ burning and mechanical removal. Bio-remediation involves microorganisms (both naturally occurring and purposely introduced) to help dissolve pollutants. One example of this is Mycoremediation, which essentially uses fungi to remove the pollutants. In-situ burning can be very successful as the oil which has been spilt is ignited and left to burn away in a controlled environment using fire-resistant booms. Mechanical removal can have a negative effect on the environment as it involves the use of heavy machinery to clean the contaminated area.
Oil Spills In Towns And Cities
In built up areas and urban environments, oil spills can have an adverse effect on human health so it’s important to act fast. This not only reduces the effects of pollution to human health but also restoring the town or city area back to a safe environment.
One thing to note is that urban areas also comprise of parks and forestry so you’ll need to factor this into your plan of action.
Roads And Highways
An oil spill on the roads or highways is always unpredictable. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to plan ahead for these spills exactly.
You can always try to note down environmentally sensitive areas which your tankers pass frequently, however in most cases you’ll be unaware of most of the local issues. It’s always a good idea to have a plan of who you will call in the event of an oil spill so that you can reduce the potential damage and costs of the spill.
With tanker spills, always ensure the leak has no flammable vapours and utilise your vehicle’s spill kit to minimise the spread of the spill. If it is possible, transfer the fuel from the damaged tanker to another unaffected transport vehicle.
As we have learned so far, oil spills can be prepared for, but there is no guarantee that a spill will happen the way you have planned for. If your site is one where oil is stored then it has the potential to cause a serious hazard to the environment. With that said, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be prepared in the unfortunate event of an oil spill and ready to control the spill until it can be professionally cleaned.
Preparing an incident response plan will allow you to act quickly and professionally in the event of a spill on site. The planning procedure should take the below form:
- Preparing the plan
- Activating and responding
- Plan testing/training
- Reviewing and training
Preparing the plan should be simple for your site in most cases. In the event of a spill on a random route with a tanker, it may be trickier trying to plan for this outcome. Having at least one contact number to call in an emergency spill could help speed up the final outcome alone.
Being able to identify the watercourse, groundwater and drainage systems that may be affected by your oil spill is an important factor in preparation. The quicker you can identify the pollution control, the better you can deal with the spill. A lot of time can be saved by pre-planning spills around drainage systems due to their complex nature and the intricacies of spill control around water and drainage.
For drainage plans that are off site or in towns and cities, please ask the highway or road authorities, local authorities or your local water company.
The plan should consist of:
- A cover page Outlining the sections of the plan
- External and internal contact lists Emergency services, local authority etc
- Site chemical, product and waste inventory The substances stored on site
- Spill kit inventory A list of items in your spill kit
- Site layout Access points, drains etc
Activation And Response
Planning is only half of the battle when it comes to a hazardous spill. Being able to carry out the plan when there is an emergency is imperative to save the environment and unnecessary costs to your business.
Make sure all relevant staff members and contractors are aware of the procedures and the plan! Include regular plan testing so that you can spot weaknesses in your plan and uncover important areas you may have missed first time around.
You can keep your plan up to date by recording lessons learnt from testing and adapting it to the changes in your business.