There is no truly effective way of cleaning up an oil spill. All the options available are not fully effective or have negative impacts.
Once a spill occurs, we are left with no choice but to find the lesser of evils. The bottom line is that with continued oil production, spills are inevitable and we simply do not have effective and safe methods for cleaning them up.
Burning the Slick
In a controlled burn, the surface oil is corralled in a u-shaped fireproof boom and the oil is burned off in a monitored fire. Unfortunately, burning the oil is a no-win situation; it creates large, toxic plumes of smoke that can result in respiratory problems and eye, nose, throat and skin irritations in both wildlife and humans. Birds may become disoriented in the smoke, and if proper searches are not conducted prior to burns, sea turtles could become trapped in the burn zones and killed as they surface for air.
Although there are many negative impacts associated with burning off the oil, it may be the lesser of two evils as it removes large amounts of oil that can result in immediate and long-term effects on wildlife. These effects could include skin irritations, organ damage, reproductive failures, developmental abnormalities and death.
Even after the burn there will still be oil remaining in the marine environment as there is no truly effective way of cleaning up a spill.
The EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard have authorized BP to use a chemical dispersant known as Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 underwater, at the source of the Deepwater Horizon leak. Subsea dispersant application has been in use since May 15, 2010. Some dispersant was also applied at the surface.
The underwater application involved pumping chemicals into the water at an unprecedented depth. Since these chemicals are toxic, this practice would almost certainly be illegal in any other instance, and it remains to be seen what effects the chemicals will ultimately have on marine life. The aim of using a dispersant is to increase the amount of oil that mixes into the water column, thereby reducing the amount on the surface and decreasing the chances of shoreline contamination.
While dispersants can decrease the exposure for surface dwelling wildlife, like seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles, they increase the possibility of exposure for fish, as well as their eggs and larvae, and for those animals that live on the bottom like shrimp, oysters and corals.
Dispersed oil particles tend to be less visible, more persistent and pervasive in the environment, which increases opportunities for long-term ecological impacts, particularly in coastal areas.