Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How to clean an oily beach

Back in 2003, Nature sent me to northwest Spain to visit some of the sites polluted by the Prestige oil spill, and speak to some of the people affected, including fish farmers, local academics, and people working on the cleanup. Then I wrote a feature looking at the operation, and looking at what we'd learned, sometimes from mistakes, about past efforts to clean up oil spills, such as the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez and Sea Empress.

The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is no doubt rather different to a tanker wreck, because it's happening offshore and deep underwater. But I think the piece still gives an idea of the issues that'll decide the spill's environmental impact and what kind of clean-up is used, if and when the oil reaches shore. Like - what kind of oil is it? (Lighter better) What kind of shore? (Rockier easier to clean) How warm is it? (Dictates speed at which bacteria break down oil.) What are the other interests - tourism, fishing etc. (Dictates how interventionist cleanup is likely to be).

Later that year, I also visited Prince William Sound, courtesy of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. It's very beautiful, and lousy with sea otters and bald eagles. Even so, we had Stanley 'Jeep' Rice with us, and he knew beaches where you could dig down a foot a have the whiff of petroleum rise up to meet you.

On that trip, we also heard about the work of Steven Picou, a sociologist who studies the effect of disasters on communities. I think I summarize correctly when I say that he's found that man-made disasters put more pressure on communities than natural disasters, because the issues around blame, compensation and litigation become much more divisive. This article shows that Alaskans are still feeling the effects, and his 2004 paper 'Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community' gives a more scholarly take.