Ideally, every drop of oil that companies collect makes its way safely into the supply chain. Unfortunately, high-profile oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon incidents, prove that mistakes can compound and result in massive leaks.
Once oil enters the environment, it can be incredibly difficult to remove, so time is of the essence.
Spilled oil can be collected and reprocessed. While this oil most likely won’t end up in your car, it can power refineries, power stations, and other industrial operations.
The type of spill also determines which oil spill recovery methods will work best. Each recovery method involves a different procedure, and oil spill recovery companies often use several methods simultaneously.
Physical recovery is generally the first oil spill containment and recovery tactic companies use. It seeks to avoid altering the nature of the oil as much as possible.
If enacted quickly, physical oil spill recovery methods effectively stop oil spread. In the case of spills in bodies of water, floating booms can fence in oil slicks so they don’t drift to shorelines and sensitive environments like wildlife nests and breeding grounds.
Skimmers, or oil collection boats, can then collect the spilled oil. The success of this method depends on the smoothness of the surf — choppy water can cause oil to pass over the booms.
Once the oil reaches the shore, those involved in the recovery effort employ different oil spill cleanup methods on land. Teams remove the oil by hand or with tools. Tractors and excavators can help, though they may exacerbate the damage in sensitive areas.
Cleanup crews also use high-pressure flushing to force oil away from shore and back into the water, where skimmers can come by and pick it up. The water is heated to roughly 340 degrees Fahrenheit in a containment tank, then sprayed on trapped oil.
Sorbents are a common tool for soaking up leaked oil and are commonly made from corncobs, straw, and peat moss, though synthetic materials are far more efficient. Compared to natural materials, which can absorb up to 15 times their weight, synthetic materials can absorb 70–90 times their weight.
Since physical recovery cannot contain or recover all of the spilled oil, it’s usually part of a larger oil spill recovery system. Still, it’s an essential part of the cleanup effort, and other approaches are more effective when paired with the physical cleanup.
Despite the possible danger to marine life, the benefits of chemical dispersants may outweigh the negative effects of an out-of-control oil spill.
A crew will spray the dispersants on the spilled oil. These chemicals break the oil down into small droplets, which can then be consumed by microbes present in the water.
The sooner the dispersants contact the oil, the better, as oil quickly “weathers” once exposed to the environment. Some of the oil components evaporate, making the contaminant harder to remove. Environmental factors such as temperature and water salinity can also impact the effectiveness of the dispersants.
While chemical dispersants make the oil easier for microbes to consume, cleanup crews can use microorganisms as tools on their own. Bioremediation employs bacteria, fungi, or algae to consume spilled oil via natural biodegradation. The microorganisms then convert the oil into non-harmful substances.
Because this remediation method relies on living organisms, its efficacy varies due to outside factors, such as the type of oil, the temperature of the water, and the amount and type of nutrients available. Fertilizers can assist microorganism growth, giving the biological cleanup method the best chance for success.
Also called in situ burning, thermal recovery involves burning the oil on the water’s surface.
Crews surround the oil with fireproof booms and ignite it, allowing the burning oil to convert to a gas which is then easily dispersed. While this method is less costly than more sophisticated, labor-intensive techniques, it can also cause charred residue to sink into the water and threaten sea life.
Furthermore, crews performing this process are at risk from the fire and fumes. The heat from the burning oil can ignite the vaporized oil, causing the fire to spread farther faster than anticipated. Even so, thermal recovery can eliminate as much as 98% of the spilled oil.
To ensure the best results with thermal recovery, it’s recommended that you work with the cleanup experts at AOTC. We have the tools, skills, and experience to perform this recovery method safely.
Factors that Determine the Best Method for Oil Spill Recovery
Effective cleanup depends in large part on the nature of the oil spill. Broadly speaking, there are four different classes of oil:
This type of oil is lightweight, fast-spreading, and highly toxic. It has a strong, distinct odor and can mix with water and soak deep into the soil.
Examples of Class A oils include crude oil, jet fuel, and gasoline.
Class B oils are less toxic than Class A. However, they’re extremely flammable and can contaminate areas for long periods.
Examples of Class B oils include heating oil, kerosene, and low-quality crude.
Thick and heavy, Class C oils won’t dilute in water quickly. That said, they have difficulty penetrating soil. They’re incredibly sticky and typically result in severe contamination.
Examples of Class C oils include Bunker B and C oils.
Class D oils are typically solid at low temperatures, though they may melt when heated and coat nearby objects and surfaces, which makes them very difficult to clean.
Examples of Class D oils include heavy crude and residual oils, some weathered oils, and high-paraffin oils.
Other factors that determine the type of recovery method used are water depth, the force and direction of the current, weather conditions, the location and size of the spill, and any environmental conditions that may hamper cleanup attempts.
Cleanup companies must also consider their goals. Is it to recover the oil for reprocessing or to remove as much oil as possible? Most methods aside from physical recovery will render the oil useless for reprocessing.
When to Contact Alpha-Omega Training and Compliance Inc.
Proper oil spill cleanup is essential for protecting nearby populations’ health and safety and the environment’s well-being.
When you need to implement reliable oil spill recovery methods, experience matters. AOTC’s 24-Hour Emergency Spill Response guarantees fast deployment and full governmental compliance. We know how to use the right approach to achieve the best results. Contact AOTC when you need fast, efficient oil spill cleanup.