What parts of the environment are affected by an oil spill? How does the ecosystem work to help clean up an oil spill? What technology is available to help clean up an oil spill? What can humans do to prevent oil spills?

Oil Spills
How do you clean up an oil spill?
Peggy gets a progress report on the clean up of one of the most well-known oil spills, the Exxon Valdez.
Segment length: 9:30


When an oil spill occurs, often due to a ruptured oil tanker or leaking oil rig, people around the world are awed by the damage to the environment. Many oil spills are caused by human error, but there are also naturally-occurring oil spills, such as seepages from oil deposits beneath the ocean floor. Regardless of their origins, oil spills have an impact on the environment.

The initial impact of an oil spill on the environment is familiar to those who hear about the event and see its effects on the evening news: a film of oil spreading across the surface of the body of water; oil-stained beaches and shorelines; waterfowl and marine mammals coated with oil, struggling to survive; and the carcasses of wildlife littering the shoreline.

The environment sustains some of its most visible damage within the first few days or months of the spill. But what are the long-term effects of a large spill? Some evidence suggests that the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill may have entered the food chain, and that the crude oil itself could continue to wreck havoc with the environment. Since oil floats and crude sinks, both the surface and the bottom of the ocean ecosystem could be affected for a long time.

Cleaning up an oil spill is no small task. Exxon to date has spent over two billion dollars on the Valdez cleanup operations. There are many methods used to clean up the oil, including cold- and warm-water washing, storm-berm relocation, and manual removal.

Nature is sometimes capable of handling the oil on her own terms. The spreading out of the oil slick increases its surface area, allowing many natural processes to begin. Low- to medium-weight crude will start to evaporate. Solution emulsification and photo-chemical oxidation also assist in the cleanup. All of these processes, however, require much time.

Acts of nature and acts of humans contribute to the likelihood of oil spills. Nature's fury may twist a ship, rupture a storage tank, or prevent cleanup operations. Human factors such as poor judgment, lack of organization, and quest for fossil fuels can lead to decisions that trigger accidents.


1. Automobiles are an obvious connection to our dependence on petroleum products. What other things do you use or come in contact with that are related to fossil fuels?
2. What are some of the things that could be done to reduce the risks of oil spills?


cold-water washing the pumping of seawater through a hose to remove the oil that is then flushed down to the waterline, trapped by booms, and recovered by skimmers
emulsification the process of dispersing one liquid in a second immiscible liquid
evaporate to change from a liquid to a vapor
oxidation the act or process of combining with oxygen
photochemical a change occuring because of exposure to light
storm berm the material deposited above the high-tide line during storms
storm-berm relocation the mechanical exposure and relocation of oiled storm berms into the tidal zone to allow natural tidal flushing and to enhance biodegradation
warm-water washing the application of heated seawater at moderate pressure to move oil


Clarke, L. (1990) Oil-spill fantasies. The Atlantic Monthly (Nov): 65-77.

Hodgson, B. (1990) Alaska's big spill: Can the wilderness heal? National Geographic Magazine (Jan): 5-42.

Winslow, R. (1978) Hard aground: The story of the Argo Merchant. New York: Norton.

Additional sources of information:

Exxon Corporation
Valdez Publication Requests
P.O. Box 1280
Houston, TX 77252
(educational materials, videotapes)

Marine Spill Response Corp.
1350 I Street NW
Suite #300
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 408-5700

Community resources:

Environmental-organization chapters
State office of the Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
U.S. Coast Guard

Main Activity

Oil Slick
Use a small-scale model of an oil spill to observe its effects on the environment.

You will create an oil-spill simulation, and observe the characteristics and effects of an oil spill. Record your observations by keeping track of how the oil spill changes in size and appearance.


  • large shallow pan
  • water
  • dirty automotive oil
  • drinking straw OR electric fan
  • string
    1. Pour water into the pan so that it is 2/3 filled. Gently pour a small amount of oil into the pan.
    2. Loop the string around the "oil spill."
    3. Mark the length of the string, measure it, and record the length on a data table.
    4. Wait five minutes, repeat the string measurements, and make any observations.
    5. Repeat steps 2 through 4 for a total of six readings.
    6. Using the straw, lightly blow on the spill to spread it out; record observations and repeat every five minutes. If your spill covers the entire pan, start over. (If you use an electric fan for this step, exercise caution.)
    7. Now, shake or vibrate the pan to create light wave action; record your observations.
    8. Additional observations could be made by making a "shoreline" of sand and rocks. Note the effects of oil on these materials.


    1. Left alone, did the oil spread out in an organized way? How did the oil spread?

    2. How did you promote the spread of the oil? What kinds of conditions were you simulating?

    3. What effect did the wave action have on the spill?

    Bring in a few stuffed animals, ones that won't shrink. Put some salad oil on them to simulate what happens when wildlife gets covered with oil from a spill. Try different ways of cleaning the animals. Use dish detergent, laundry soap, carpet cleaner, water, hair dryers, towels, and other devices to assist in the clean up. Devise the most efficient way to clean them.

    Fill your room with confetti, polystyrene- foam packing peanuts, or popcorn. Develop an ingenious way (or use a fan) to distribute the material all over the room to illustrate how haphazard and uncontrolled a spill can be. How can the "spill" be cleaned up quickly and efficiently? What kind of organization or chain of command is needed? Have vacuum cleaners, brooms, and bags available for the cleanup. Now that the mess is cleaned up, what do you do with the material?

    Conduct a debate that represents the concerns of the people or organizations that are affected by an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez. Interests may include government, oil companies, the shipping industry, citizens living in the area, fishing industries, the tourism board, and environmentalists. Divide into teams to research and prepare the various sides of the issue. Focus on specific questions, such as: "Should the government relax environmental restrictions and encourage off-shore oil exploration in U.S. coastal waters?" Find actual position statements from organizations to use in your arguments.

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