Cleaning Up After Oil Spills


Do Water and Oil Mix?

Assume for a moment that you’re a betting kind of person. Would you accept a bet that oil and water don’t mix?

You wouldn’t accept the bet if you visited the National Oil Spill Response Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey. There you would see with you own eyes that oil and water can mix easily. Not only do they mix, but the consequences are disastrous.

The National Oil Spill Response Facility, known as Ohmsett, conducts tests on oil-spill clean-up equipment. To make the tests as realistic as possible, the people at Ohmsett create actual oil spills using real oil. They do it in a 2.6 million gallon cement tank, that looks as big as a couple of foot ball fields laid end to end.

Testing with a Boom Containment Apparatus

To test, for example, a boom containment apparatus, officials such as Dave DeVitis, will release a measured amount of oil onto the surface of the tank. Then they drag the boom along the length of the tank, checking to see how well it collects the spilled oil. DeVitis and his colleagues measure how much oil gets past the boom.

The faster the boom travels, the more oil will slip under the boom and escape. At speeds of about one mile per hour, a boom might catch all the oil. But if you speed things up to, say, three miles per hour, oil begins to slip under the boom.

Underwater cameras record this. Technicians such as Don Backer, who operate the computers that measure this, can tell to within a tenth of a second when the equipment started to fail. When the equipment begins to fail, you see a telltale iridescent slick on what was clear water moments before. But if you look ten minutes later, assuming that there are some good-sized waves in the tank, the multi-colored slick is gone, It’s replaced by an ugly, mud-colored scum.

“That scum,” explains Bill Schmidt, the Site Manager, “is a mixture of oil and water.” When an oil spill occurs on the open water, cleaning it up rapidly is critically important. The longer the oil and water are out there mixing, the greater the volume the people doing the clean-up must cope with.

If the initial spill was 100 gallons, in a few hours, those 100 gallons may have mixed with 1000 gallons of sea water. Where initially the clean-up crew only had to pick up 100 gallons, in short order they’re up against collecting 100 times that volume.

Storing the Oil

Further, when the clean-up crews collect the oil, they also have to store it. In some cases, the answer is to store it on the clean-up vessels. When these are full, they’ll resort to temporary storage devices. These are floating rubber bladders that can be as big as a large boat.

Until it’s cleaned up, the oil will continue mixing with the water. The longer it takes to complete the clean-up, the more complicated the clean-up operation becomes.That’s why it’s critically important to use clean-up equipment that operates as it should.

Several agencies sponsor the Ohmsett research. These include the Department of the Interior, the Navy, and the Coast Guard, as well as private groups.

All of these groups want to make sure that anyone who has to clean up an oil spill has equipment that works efficiently. The costs of badly designed equipment-and unfortunately there is some of it around-is catastrophic for the environment and for those trying to clean it up.


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