The Effects of Oil Spills

••• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Oil spills have a number of effects on the environment and economy. On a basic level, oil spill effects will damage waterways, marine life and plants and animals on the land. The impact of oil spills can also ruin the infrastructure and economy of a particular area with the long-term effects being felt for decades. Cleaning an oil spill is very expensive and the costs get spread to government agencies, non-profits and the oil transport company itself. Every time an oil spill occurs, the public looses faith in the oil companies' ability to control this dangerous but needed product.

Features of an Oil Spill

Oil has a direct impact on water itself. The chemical composition of oil mixes with the water and creates a new substance known as "mousse." This mousse becomes even more sticky than oil alone, causing it to stick to organisms and materials much more readily. Mousse resembles food for a number of animals and also attracts certain curious birds and marine life. For people attempting to clean the slick, the oil-water mixture is very hard to dispose of and eventually retains very little value as oil itself.

Ecological Significance

During and after an oil spill, animals can suffer detrimental effects on their fur and feathers. For example, a seal pup's fur will break down, causing it to experience hypothermia. This same effect is responsible for the majority of bird deaths in oil slicks. Outright ingestion of oil creates toxins in the system. This is seen in animals in the immediate vicinity of the oil spill and also by animals farther up the food chain. If a fish consumes a small amount of oil, it can survive, but may pass on that oil to another animal far away from the site, causing its death. One long-term effect on animals is the fact that most birds and reptiles exposed to an oil slick have the side effect of producing thinner egg shells. In addition, algae and sea grass becomes tainted. This can make the entire ecosystem uninhabitable for years.

Long-Term Impacts

There are detrimental long-term effects of an oil spill on humans. One example of this is with the native Inuit peoples near the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. With much of their ecosystem destroyed, the tribes were forced to rely on government assistance to continue their lives in the area. With all manner of sea life destroyed, the culture could not continue to flourish and became essentially a welfare community with a very poor economy.

Other Considerations

The overall cost and challenge of cleaning up an oil spill is enormous. Since oil spills can occur anywhere in the ocean or near land, the resources needed to repair the situation in a timely manner are generally not located near the site. This becomes even more expensive when a location is remote. The general ways to clean up an oil spill are varied and cause their own environmental effects.

One preferred method is the introduction of microorganisms that cause the oil to herd to the surface and turn into an almost gel-like substance. One drawback with this system is that a number of bacteria are created which break down the hydrocarbons. Once most of the oil slick is broken down, the bacteria move onto other materials containing hydrocarbons. Controlled burning can also be used. However this method causes a large amount of air pollution and can get out of control very easily, spreading the fire to other areas. Detergents are also beneficial in fighting an oil slick. But like the microorganisms, these have long-term effects on the ecosystems. According to NOAA, detergents kill coral reefs.

Social Effects

In nearly every incident of an oil spill, there is a public outcry against the practice of shipping oil and the company responsible. In the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 38,000 people sued the company over the environmental damage. The plaintiffs were ultimately awarded $287 million in compensatory damages and $380.6 million in punitive damages. This same incident also derailed the plans to build a facility to remove oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Opponents worried about the possible effects of an oil spill on land in a protected habitat. In addition, the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., caused many laws to be placed on the oil companies operating in and around the United States. It placed a moratorium on the building of new oil refineries and also a number of rules regarding the transport of oil.

References

About the Author

Jason Chavis has been a professional freelance writer since 1998. He is the author of four books, two movies and a play as well as numerous articles for "Scientific American," The History Channel, City Pages and "The Onion." In 1996, Chavis won the award for "best science fiction/fantasy" from the River Valley Writer’s Conference.

Photo Credits

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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