How are Oil Spills Cleaned?

Oil is imperative for normal life to function. Even after major efforts taken to reduce our dependency on oil, it still holds a firm grasp on the world and its inhabitants. As most of us know, oil is only available on select places and is transported to different parts of the world via different mediums. Of such mediums, 60% of the share is held by oil being transported by sea or waterways. Now, the ships or containers carrying oil have to cover large distances to reach their destinations and during the journey can meet with a tragedy resulting in the oil being spilled on to the sea or ocean causing serious environmental damage. We have all heard and read about the effects of oil spill on the environment and the habitat around it and that agencies are working day and night to clean up the oil spill often leaving most of us wondering as to how the cleaning process is taking place. The responsible agencies have a few simple but effective ways to clean up an oil spill. The fact that oil and water don’t mix probably works in our favor. When an oil spill occurs, the oil forms a millimeter thick layer that floats on water. Oil eventually spreads out and the layer thins in the process until it becomes a widespread sheen on the surface of water. The methods used depend upon various factors such as how fast can a crew reach the oil spill, waves, water currents and the weather.

  • If an oil spill can be reached by the crew in an hour or two, the crew may choose the method of containment and skimming to clean up the spill. In this method, long buoyant booms are used which float on water along with a skirt that rests bellows the surface of water to contain the slick and containing the spread of oil. The layer of oil can then be scooped or skimmed from the surface using boats and stored in a container.


  • A layer of oil on the surface can also be cleaned by using of sorbents. Sorbent is just like large sponges that absorb the oil from the water surface.


  • The crew may also decide to burn the layer of oil, also called as in-situ burning. This method is not used often, especially near coastal areas, as the burning of oil releases toxic smoke into the atmosphere which pose environmental risks of their own.

Though the methods may seem easy, cleaning an oil spill is rarely such an easy task. Oil spills are a very messy and very harmful to the environment. Sometimes an oil spill can reach shores and have a major effect on marine life and marine life and wildlife, proving deadly majority of the times. This is when cleanup crews have to use other methods to clean an oil spill.

  • Nature also plays a part in helping to cleaning an oil spill. The sun, wave and weather all contribute to the breakdown of oil in water. Eventually, the oil evaporates. Because of this, sometimes, cleanup agencies can leave some oil slicks that doesn’t harm the marine life and wildlife or any civilization and let the natural processes take care of it. Whilst in the process of breakdown, oil can mix with water along with a solid particulate like sand and turn into ‘tar balls’ which do not pose the same threats to the environment as oil slicks because of its unwillingness to stay together.
  • Oil spills in tropical areas are handled with dispersants. Dispersants are chemicals that breakdown the oil slick faster than natural processes allowing the droplets to mix with water which is consumed by the aquatic system quicker. This method, however, has a risk associated with it. The chemicals used for the process are considered harmful and can be absorbed by the marine life into the food chain causing harm of its own.


  • When an oil slick reaches the shoreline or happens in a coastal region, the situation becomes more serious. Cleaning the oil slick becomes a tedious process. In such situations, cleaning agencies can employ the use of biological agents. Fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen are spread over the area affected by the oil slick helping in creation of micro-organisms. These micro-organisms breakdown the oil into natural components like fatty acids and carbon dioxide. Other forms of biological agents can be used in open sea oil spills.


The magnitude of oil spill and its closeness to marine life and wildlife habitat have an effect on the number of marine life and wildlife hurt or killed. Seals and otters can become covered in oil which breaks down the insulation provided by the fur of sea mammals and also the water-resistant properties of birds’ feathers. Animals can also be poisoned by the oil they ingest while cleaning themselves clean. Oil spill cleanup agencies use dummies and floating balloons to scare the marine life and wildlife away from spill areas but doesn’t help much in limiting the effect on marine life and wildlife. According to recent reports, there has been significant decrease in the number of oil spills in open water, but sadly hasn’t ceased completely yet. And even though we use such extensive efforts to clean up the oil spill, they still leave a mark on the environment. Even today, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989, the area along Prince William Sound in Alaska is still polluted from oil which has yet to biodegrade completely.


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