To understand how oil affects the environment, we must first understand what an oil is. The word oil describes a wide range of hydrocarbon-based substances defined generally as non-polar chemical substances which are comprised primarily of hydrocarbons and are hydrophobic (does not mix with water) and lipophilic (can mix with other oils) and are typically flammable.
Natural oil are fossil fuels found beneath the earths surface or below the ocean floor in reservoirs where oil droplets reside in small holes or “pores” within the rock. After companies drill and pump the oil out of these reserves the oil is transported by either pipes, tanks, trains, or ships to processing plants where the oil is refined into various petroleum products for use in specific purposes such as fuels for cars, heating of homes, cooking, and other products which derive from oils such as plastics, soaps, paints and pharmaceuticals.
Due to the substantial amounts of oil required by industries throughout the world, spillages are inevitable and their impact on human and environmental life, particularly to aquatic ecosystems, can be devastating with approximately ten thousand (10 000) tons of oil being spilt yearly into the ocean and inland. As oils are less dense than both freshwater and saltwater, when oils spillage occurs the oil floats on the water surface reducing the light penetration into the water and affecting aquatic life. As time progresses the oil on top of the water slowly spreads into the thin layer covering the surface of the water called a slick. The multiple toxic substances which are present within most oils such as Sulphur Dioxide, Petroleum Coke, Benzene, Polycyclic Hydrocarbons and Hydrogen Fluoride.
The effects oil spills have on the environment will depend on factors such as the quantity spilt, type of spill and the environment it was spilled into. Weather conditions at the time of spillage can also have an influence on the oils characteristics and behaviour.
Oil spills can impact the environment in the following ways:
Surface dwelling animals and birds can suffocate from the oil when coming into accidental contact;
Animals and birds which ingest the oils can result in poisoning and in some cases death. The chemicals within the oils have also been proven to affect the reproductive capabilities of some species if ingested.
Spillages of oils with high viscosity can result in the physical smothering of organisms and cases the impairs the function of respiration, feeding and thermoregulation.
If oils come into contact with birds’ feathers, the feathers mat and separate which impairs the water proofing of the feathers and exposes the birds sensitive skin to extremes in temperatures and making the bird incapable of finding food.
Oil spillages can result in the loss of key organisms with a specific function within the ecosystem. At the niche in the ecosystem is no longer occupied, the balance of the food chain and ecosystem can be altered, and the niche can be replaced with an organism which affects the surrounding ecological community differently.
Clean-up operations for oil spills can additionally lead to the loss of shelter and habitat of organisms within the affected area and thereby further negatively affecting a damaged ecosystem.
To date, no thoroughly satisfactory method has been developed for the cleaning up of major oil spills, particularly in the marine environment. Responses to major oil spills primarily focus on containing the spillage and removing as much of it as possible and to reduce the area which will be affected by the spillage as much as possible. This substantially reduces the environmental and economic damages which will result from the spillage. In calm water areas such as harbours and channels, floating booms which are placed around the source of the spillage are commonly used in order to prevent the spread of the oil slick over the water surface. Skimmers are also commonly used to separate the floating oil from the water and is taken to large storage facilities to be disposed of or recycled. Absorbents are currently the most common and widespread remediation strategy for both marine and inland oil spillages. Sorbents such as straw, volcanic ash, sawdust and other shavings are places onto the oil spill and absorb the oil from the water or surface. The sorbent is then removed manually and disposed of at a registered hazardous waste facility. Bio-remediation is however fast becoming a more commonly used strategy as it uses micro-organisms to remove and/ or detoxify pollutants from a contaminated areas and is proving to be a more cost effective and practical remediation method if applied correctly.
The best way to remediate oil spillages remains to prevent them initially and therefore guidelines and regulations should be followed correctly when extracting, storing or transporting hydrocarbon products. ENASS has a highly qualified and diverse team who can assist with the applications of waste management licenses and internal and/or third-party audits amongst many other services to assist in ensuring that the guidelines and regulations are being followed correctly.
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