With millions of gallons crude oil being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the focus now is on shutting down the leak. However, in the cleanup efforts to come, "extreme caution" must be exercised so as not to make a bad situation even worse, says a leading bioremediation expert with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).
"The concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own," says Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist in Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division who has studied such notorious oil-spill sites as the Exxon Valdez spill into Alaska's Prince William Sound.
"It is important to remember that oil is a biological product and can be degraded by microbes, both on and beneath the surface of the water," Hazen says. "Some of the detergents that are typically used to clean-up spill sites are more toxic than the oil itself, in which case it would be better to leave the site alone and allow microbes to do what they do best."
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by energy giant BP that exploded on April 20, is now estimated to be disgorging some 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. To contain the spreading oil slick and keep it from polluting the fragile ecosystems of the Gulf coast and the Mississippi delta, clean-up crews have deployed an array of chemical dispersants, oil skimmers and booms. They have also attempted to burn off some of the surface oil. Such aggressive clean-up efforts are fraught with unintended consequences, Hazen warns. He cites as prime examples the Amoco Cadiz and the Exxon Valdez disasters.
In 1978, an oil tanker, the Amoco Cadiz, split in two about three miles off the coast of Normandy, releasing about 227,000 tons heavy crude oil that ultimately stained nearly 200 miles of coastline. The spill-site was so large that only the areas of
|Contact: Lynn Yarris|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory