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What is Oil Remediation?

By Jessica Hobby
Updated May 17, 2024
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Oil remediation is the process used to clean up oil spills. Oil spills threaten the health of humans and are harmful to the environment and may be remedied in a variety of ways. The threat level and the exact type of oil remediation used depends on the size of the spill, the type of oil, the location of the spill and the climate where the spill occurs.

The most preferred method of oil remediation, especially in the water, is to leave it alone and let it naturally disintegrate. When there is no danger of spills affecting marine wildlife or coastal regions, the wind, sun, ocean currents and waves will effectively break up and evaporate most kinds of oil. The lighter the oil the easier it will break down naturally.

Containing the oil with booms and collecting it with skimmer equipment is another method of oil remediation for spills in the water, except for the high seas. Booms may be made of a wide array of materials and come in a large variety of shapes. Depending on the size of the spill, they may be placed in deep water, float evenly with the water line or sit above the water line up to three feet (one meter). Once the oil is contained, it is scooped or sucked out and placed in nearby containers or vessels. In some cases it may even be placed on shore for easier cleanup.

In cases where oil remediation takes place within the first few hours of the spill, and sea grass and deep-water coral are not in danger, dispersant products may be used. Dispersants work to break up the oil so it may biodegrade more quickly. When the oil is broken up it allows it to mix with the water, which promotes evaporation and consumption by bacteria.

When oil, petroleum and other hydrocarbons are spilled in large and small amounts, they may be cleaned up by using a PRP (petroleum remediation product). PRPs were developed by NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and come in different forms. PRPs consist of tiny balls of treated wax which have added nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that fertilize the microorganisms which eat the oil. Powder PRP products are scattered over a spill to quicken the natural biodegradation process. The oil latches onto the balls when it comes in contact with the wax while the nutrients help promote the growth of bacteria which consume the oil.

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Discussion Comments

By Alchemy — On Jun 23, 2011

@submariner- Honestly, I believe that Environmental remediation techniques in use today are good enough. In the grand scheme of things, the costs of clean-up affect the costs of the products. In an ideal world, everything would be restored to the point that it was before human interaction, but this is simply not realistic.

The costs of everything we need or want would be much more than people could afford. I look at things from the viewpoint that measures the impact of something against its costs. The Exxon Spill was horrible for the local ecosystem, but it is causing little economic damage today. To me, this means that the efforts to clean the spill have been adequate.

By Glasshouse — On Jun 23, 2011

@aplenty- In one of my science classes I studied bioremediation and phytoremediation. I do know that bacteria can be stored for longer periods, but they require either a lot of energy, or specialized equipment. The process for storing bacteria cultures is also laborious. I do not know that you would effectively be able to store enough of a single type of bacteria to be viable in remediating something the size of an oil spill.

The two main methods of storing bacteria are freezing or drying (through freeze-drying). Freeze dried bacteria is the most stable, but not all bacterium take to it the same. The other method is to put bacteria into a deep freeze, but this requires constant monitoring. Additionally, you would not be able to store casks full of bacteria in a nitrogen freezer, ready to release when the situation calls for it.

Furthermore, more than one type of bacteria will feed on oil, so identifying the proper bacteria and introducing them in natural ratios may prove to be challenging. The best method is to create the ideal conditions for the bacteria to multiply at the site of the spill.

By aplenty — On Jun 22, 2011

Can oil eating bacteria be grown in labs and released at the site of the oil spill? Is it possible to store these bacteria so they can be "woken up" when they are needed to clean up an oil spill?

I was horrified at the slow response to the gulf spill, and the little that could be done to clean it up. The Gulf of Mexico is already such a polluted oceanic wasteland, so there surely has to be a better way than setting surface oil on fire and skimming oil off the surface. I would assume, as submariner posted earlier, that there is a better method of cleaning up oil spills than these seemingly archaic methods.

By submariner — On Jun 20, 2011

In my opinion, there has not been enough research done in the field of oil remediation. Bioremediation does work, but it is very limited in the amount of oil it will effectively disperse. The proof of this is the Exxon Valdez Spill off the coast of Alaska. According to the State of Alaska and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the amount of oil remaining is significant, and is just as toxic as it was a few weeks after the spill.

When oil disperses, especially in colder waters where bacteria cannot multiply as effectively, only the aromatics evaporate. The aromatics are the lightest gases in the oil like benzene and toluene are removed, and these aromatics only account for 5% of the hydrocarbons in oil.

Recent research has concluded that the remaining heavier hydrocarbons are releasing toxic enzymes that are responsible for reduced populations of marine life, not the availability of their food sources like some would want to believe. The reality is that the oil supposedly cleaned up in the Exxon Valdez spill is only dispersing at a rate of 1-3% per year. It will take at least a few more decades for the ecosystem to be free of oil and begin to return to normal.

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