Oil Spill Clean Up: What Happens After a Spill

The environment can be very fragile at times. The Earth was created with certain systems in place. There is a balance in the natural cycle that takes place in every ecosystem. When that balance is thrown off, the ecosystem as a whole can be affected. Such an instance is during an oil spill. An oil spill is basically the end of the world for that specific ecosystem and those surrounding it. However, there are multiple methods for oil spill clean up, that companies and governments have implemented to help rebuild that area of the environment.


Oil Spill Clean Up

Oil spills do not really need a definition. Basically, it is when oil, a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon, is released into the environment due to human activity. Most commonly, oil spills are covered when it happens in a marine environment like the most recent major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2016. However, oil spills can also happen on land.


The reason oil spills are so harmful is due to the nature of oil. It is a very thick liquid that is extremely hard to wash off any surface. In addition, it is also less dense than water, which means that when it is introduced to a marine environment, it sits on top of the water, instead of sinking. Which may sound like a good thing, but it absolutely is not. When it covers the water, that ecosystem is not able to get any sunlight and is often deprived of oxygen. In addition, any birds in the area or that land in the oil spill can get trapped and are unable to fly.


Clean up and recovery from an oil spill is difficult and depends on many factors. This includes the type of oil, the temperature of the water which affects evaporation and biodegradation, and the type of area the oil is covering whether it is water, shorelines, or solid ground.


How to Clean Up Oil Spills

Now, there are several different types of oil spills. Of course, oil spills in the ocean reserve the top priority, however you might also be wondering about mundane issues like “how to clean up motor oil spill on concrete”. I’ll start off with the simpler issues and move on to the more pressing issues.


Garage Oil Spill Clean up

So, you’ve been working on your car and figured that it could use some new motor oil. Either you tried to change the oil yourself or you were just putting new oil in. Either way, motor oil ended up on your perfectly clean garage floor. Or the more plausible scenario, your wife told you to clean the garage or she’s leaving you, and while she does get on your case once in awhile, you do love her a lot. Plus you have no idea how to function without her, which puts you right where we started. In the garage, on the floor tirelessly scrubbing a stubborn oil stain on the ground.

oil spill clean up


Oil Spill Clean Up: Step One

You do not have enough time to run to the store and buy an alkaline degreaser, but if you have a cat, odds are you have kitty litter unless you have somehow taught the cat to go outside or better yet, in the toilet. If so, please let me know. But anyways, if the spill is recent enough, kitty oil is the answer to the question, what absorbs oil the best. All you have to do is pour on enough of it to cover the whole spill. It is best to grind it down onto the oil with a brush. Then just wait 24 hours for the litter to completely absorb the oil. In the meantime, you can clean the rest of the garage.


Also, if you do not have kitty litter, a paper towel will also work. Just place it on top and soak up as much as you can. DO NOT WIPE THE OIL. That will only make it worse. Blot the spill with the towel.


Oil Spill Clean Up: Step Two

Now you have to remember to come back the next day to finish the job. That is crucial. By now, there should be a clump of cat litter where the oil was. Just sweep up the litter and store it in an airtight, metal container with no plastic lining. Be sure to check your local laws about proper disposal of flammable material.


Now of course the cat litter will not have cleaned the entire spill off the floor, it’s not magic. There will probably be a small oil spill stain on the ground. In this case, or for a slightly older stain, squirt normal dish soap onto the stain. Then pour a small amount of hot water and mix it into the soap. Use a brush to spread the mixture all over the stain. Use that brush and thoroughly scrub the soap into the stain. This will take some effort to completely remove any trace of the stain.


After about 30 minutes, the soap should have pulled most of the oil up. Now, you can use the cat litter again to soak up the mixture, or you can use a paper towel or a sponge. Again, blot, do not rub as you may make it worse. Repeat the process as needed. And there you go. Now your wife or significant other will have to find something else to nag you about.


Oil Spill Clean Up: Bonus

So the first two steps will work very well for oil spills that just recently happened. But what about those stains that have been there for a while? Well, again apart from going out and buying a commercial oil remover product, there is a homemade poultice that you can make that should deal with any old stain. However, the only issue is that it is a bit tedious to mix.


First things first, make sure you use protection as poultices are a bit hazardous. Next you have to choose a solvent which is used to break down the oil. Acetone is your best and safest bet, but others include lacquer thinner, mineral spirits, or the highly corrosive sodium orthophosphate. Next you have to mix that solvent with an absorbent powder to make it into a paste. You can use baking powder, flour, powdered sugar, cat litter, diatomaceous earth, kaolin, talc, whiting chalk, or fuller’s earth. The most effective is probably the cat litter. Be sure that your solvent will not damage your concrete finish. You can test it on a small, hidden corner. If it does cause damage, mix a new poultice with a different solvent.

Apply the mixture to the stain and leave it sit for at least 24 hours. When the poultice has dried, brush it away and scrub the area with water. Repeat the process as necessary.


Ocean Oil Spill Clean Up

Ok, here is the real serious issue. What happens when oil is spilled in the ocean or near a shoreline and how does one clean it up. It is actually extremely difficult and in the process, many animals are harmed and die. This is not so much due to the cleaning process but rather a result from the spill itself.

oil spill clean up


When it comes to cleaning up an ocean or shoreline oil spill, there are many factors that have to be taken into account (see above). Ironically, the line you mother gave you “you made the mess, you clean it up”, does not really apply here. The oil company has little to do with oil spill clean up. However, they do foot the bill to the companies that do all the heavy lifting. So who actually does the clean up? Two of the biggest cleaners are actually the United States Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency, which you know who has talked about getting rid of.


How to Clean Up an Oil Spill in Water

There are several different methods that the EPA and Coast Guard use to clean up when an oil spill occurs. However, there are three main methods that they have found to be the most effective at resolving these disasters. They are containment and skimming, using dispersants, or bioremediation. Let’s go through each of them.


Oil Containment

This is the most common oil spill clean up methods which organizations use. This method involves trying to contain the spill within the affected area and preventing it from spreading and harming more of the ecosystem. However, this is only possible if the spill is accessible within a few hours of it happening. Otherwise, it will be too late to contain it because it will have spread too far.


The way a spill is contained is by using a device called an oil boom. What are oil booms you may ask. They are a temporary floating barrier with small skirts that hang below the water, used to reduce the possibility of polluting shorelines and other resources. These booms help to concentrate oil in thicker surface layers so that the skimmers or other collection methods can be more effective.Booming works by extending the plastic tube looking device around the affected area. Because oil is less dense than the water, therefore the boom is highly effective at containing it.


Booms can also be used for various different tactics. Containment is the most common and self explanatory. There is also diversion booming which is used to divert the contamination to a certain area. Deflection booming means to change the course of the contamination. This method is rarely used for oil spills. The last tactic is exclusion booming, which is meant to block off a sensitive area from contamination. This is mostly used for when there is an oil spill near a shoreline, to prevent the oil from reaching land.

oil spill clean up


The second part to containment is the removal of the oil. This is done by a few different methods. Skimming, vacuuming, or the use of sorbents which are large sponges specifically designed to pull oil from the water surface.


Oil Dispersants

If the spill can not be contained because it is either too large or it has spread too far, the only option is to speed up the natural breakdown process of the oil. Nature does this as soon as something like this happens, however it does so rather slowly because of the sheer size of the problem.


The way oil is dispersed is by means of chemical agents. These chemicals allow the oil to bond with the water which prevents the slick from spreading further and contaminating more areas. However, there are a few problems with this method. One of which is the creation of tar balls. As the oil binds with the water, it also congeals around sand and other particles in the water. This creates large balls of tar which float on top of the water. They can be picked up by skimmers, but more often they find their way to shorelines. This was a huge problem with the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon, one of the largest spills ever.


Also, of course adding chemicals to an already contaminated ocean is not really beneficial for the ecosystem. However it is the lesser of two evils. By adding chemical to the water, you are removing a worse chemical. But the dispersants have been found to be harmful to coral reefs, sea grass and other organisms, often even more than the oil itself.



When money is not an issue and an environmentally friendly option is available, why not go for it! Bioremediation is the addition of biological agents into the water or shoreline that hastens the biodegradation of the oil. Basically, it is helping the natural process that has already been started. The biological agents are bacteria or other microorganisms that are able to break down the oil into components that can be absorbed by the water or used by other organisms.


Controversial Methods

Besides those three main methods which are the most effective ways for oil spill clean up, there are a few others that have been used for certain circumstances. Two of the most controversial methods are burning in-situ and just leaving it for nature.


Burning in-situ is the process of setting the oil ablaze on the site the spillage has occurred. Literally burning the oil away. While it is an effective way of getting rid of the oil, I probably do not have to tell you why that is bad, but just in case. It was used during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil. Burning that much oil released insane amounts of carbon dioxide along with other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Another example of the lesser evil, if you can call greenhouse gases in incredible amounts all at once the lesser evil.


The other controversial method is just leaving the oil for nature to take care of. This actually has some evidence of it working, it just takes a long time. This is only considered in the spill is far enough out at sea with no chance of it ever making it to shore or greatly affecting many ecosystems.

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Patrick Sands

Hey, I'm Pat. I am a Millersville grad with a Bachelors of Arts in English. I love to write, play video games, watch movies and TV, basically be a total nerd whenever I can. Green and Growing is important to me because it allows me to help others be as green and eco-friendly as possible. With Climate Change being what it is, it is even more important for people to get educated about their environment. This website allows me to do my part in that. Also, I'm a huge goof who tries to add some humor into anything I write. Stay Excellent out there!

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