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Discharge response and cleanup
  • Response to an oil spill will depend on the type of oil discharged, the location of the spill and its proximity to sensitive environments, and other factors.
  • Containment equipment is used to contain a spill, while chemical and biological methods can help with removal and dispersal of the oil.

Response to oil spills requires the combined efforts of the owner or operator of the facility or vessel that spilled the oil, the federal On-Scene Coordinator (OSC), and/or state and local government officials. The specific steps taken to respond to a spill depend not only on the response plans that were prepared before the spill but also on the type of oil discharged, the location of the discharge, the proximity of the spill to sensitive environments, and other environmental factors.

When an oil spill occurs on water, it is critical to contain the spill as quickly as possible in order to minimize danger and potential damage to people, property, and natural resources. Containment equipment is used to restrict the spread of oil and to allow for its recovery, removal, or dispersal. The most common type of equipment used to control the spread of oil is the floating barrier, called a boom.

Chemical and biological methods can be used in conjunction with mechanical means for containing and cleaning up oil spills. Dispersants are most useful in helping to keep oil from reaching shorelines and other sensitive habitats. Biological agents have the potential to assist recovery in sensitive areas such as shorelines, marshes, and wetlands. In-situ burning has shown the potential to be an effective cleanup method under certain circumstances. Research into these technologies continues in the hope that future oil spills can be contained and cleaned up more efficiently and effectively.

Despite the best efforts of response teams to contain spilled oil, some of it may contaminate shorelines of oceans and lakes, banks of rivers and streams, and other ecologically sensitive habitats along the water’s edge. To help protect these resources from damage and to preserve them for public enjoyment and for the survival of numerous species, cleaning up shorelines following oil spills has become an important part of oil spill response.

Factors that affect the type of cleanup method used include the type of oil spilled, the geology of the shoreline and rate of water flow, and the type and sensitivity of biological communities in the area. Natural processes, such as evaporation, oxidation, and biodegradation help to clean the shoreline. Physical methods, such as wiping with sorbent materials, pressure washing, and raking and bulldozing can be used to assist these natural processes.

Cleanup from an oil spill is not considered complete until all waste materials are disposed of properly. The cleanup of an oiled shoreline can create different types of waste materials, including liquid oil, oil mixed with sand, and tar balls. Oil can sometimes be recovered and reused, disposed of by incineration, or placed in a landfill. States and the federal government strictly regulate the disposal of oil.

Oil collected during cleanup activities must be reused or disposed of properly, using such methods as incineration or landfilling. Choosing the most effective yet potentially least damaging cleaning methods helps to ensure that the natural systems of shorelines and the recreational benefits they offer will be preserved and protected for future generations.