To err is human! The history of mankind is rife with catastrophic events which occurred accidentally causing huge damage to properties, and loss of human and animal lives. The instances of oil spills –which release liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, mostly affecting marine ecosystem — are a result of such human errors. These spills or leaks not only contaminate and pollute water at a large scale but also suffocate the aquatic wildlife. The scale of oil spills is worrying; each year thousands of smaller incidents of oil spills are being recorded; further, the process of fracking to create fissures in underground rocks to collect fossil fuels produces somewhere around 100 billion barrels of wastewater, annually, impacting marine and coastal communities drastically and disrupting their livelihood.
Oil spills can be fatal for animals and humans. Most of the impacts either come directly from the oil or by the response and clean up processes. When oil enters the structure of the plumage of birds and animals with fur, their insulating capability reduces significantly and as a result, they become more susceptible to fluctuations in temperature and hypothermia. The penetrated oil in the feathers may also make them less buoyant in water. Many animals use natural scents to find and communicate with their babies and mothers. The smell of the oil can overshadow their natural scent. As a result, babies are either abandoned or rejected, leading to starving and eventually, death. For most birds, oil in the eyes can impair their vision and oil in their feathers impair flying, making them blind and vulnerable to predators. When they preen their feathers to remove the stuck oil, it can accidentally enter their body which may irritate their digestive systems and cause liver and renal failure. Oil and chemicals have also been found to disturb the hormonal balance in the affected animals. Additionally, the hydrocarbons in the crude oil contain poisonous chemicals such as benzene and toluene, which can pollute the air as well.
There have been several major spills between the year 2010 and 2018, globally, affecting rivers, bays and oceans. Most of these spills have been accidental in nature involving tankers, vessels, barges, refineries, drilling rigs and facilities to store oil. One of the deadliest and most detrimental oil spill accidents was BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico when the BP well beneath the platform blew out resulting in 11 casualties and leaving 17 others injured. It is estimated that around 3.2 million barrels of oil made its way into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days, killing marine lives and impacting the coastal communities. Even to this day, the impacts of the oil spill and the cleanup process which used dispersants can be felt. Recent studies suggest that the Corexit dispersant used in the cleanup process has been linked to obesity, mental and other physical health hazards.
The cleanup and recovery of the oil spills are not only complex but it is also an expensive process. Some of the processes include bioremediation which involves micro-organisms or biological agents to break down oil; controlled burning; use of dispersants to dissipate oil slicks. To prevent such future instances of oil spills, adequate technological assessment of equipment and procedures, training, regular inspection should be ensured. A little more caution may save our marine ecosystem from witnessing another Deepwater Horizon accident!