On October 19th, residents of Broadkill Beach, Delaware, were shocked to find oily debris and tar bars washed up along their portion of the Atlantic Ocean. A response team from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) was deployed to the scene to investigate but the damage was already done. Tides had carried the oil down an 11-mile stretch of ocean, covering all of Delaware’s Atlantic beaches with an estimated 5 barrels of “heavy fuel oil,” suspected to be from a large boating vessel. Beaches were shut down for days as 75 tons of oily debris was removed.
While the beaches are now declared “cleaned,” the oil spill could have been a lot worse. Broadkill Beach, is the horseshoe crab capital of the world – a marine animal most known for its blue blood which is crucial in testing vaccines. Luckily most of the horseshoe crabs had already started migrating off the coast and were unaffected by the oil spill. If the spill would have happened in June, however, when thousands of horseshoe crabs and tourists flock to the Delaware coastline, the story would have been much more tragic. The crab population would have been devastated and the beaches shutting down would have taken thousands of dollars out of the local economy.
Delaware is not alone. In August, 3100 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from a wastewater treatment plant in Charleston, South Carolina, into a nearby marsh, dying 22 acres of marshland a bright red. While about 99% of the fuel was cleaned up in less than 48 hours, “the long-term effects of the spill are yet to be determined” and there are questions about the effect the fuel had on the crabs, fish and shrimp in the local seafood industry.
Last week a similar spill occurred in Selawik, Alaska, when diesel fuel was leaked only 610 feet from the River that supplies the water for the village and is known for its pristine waters. That investigation and cleanup is still underway but over 750 gallons of fuel have been recovered with potentially thousands more covered in fresh snow.
Unfortunately, these seemingly “small” spillages are not at all uncommon – they just don’t make national news. As of Dec. 3, 173 oil spills were registered in the NOAA incident archive for this year alone, most of which were considered “small spills.” This number does not include oil spills that didn’t require NOAA attention, likely deflating the number of oil spills that actually occured. The cumulative effect these spills have on the environment should not be discounted.
Oil spills create a slick film over top of the land or water where the spillage occured, eventually coating the vegetation and animals living there. In marine environments this often means coating birds feathers and subjecting them to hypothermia, clogging the gills of fish resulting in dead zones and vegetation being coated resulting in oil entering the food web. On land, oil reduces pore spaces between grains, reducing the ability for plants to grow and in some cases, making its way to groundwater. If the oil becomes volatile, this gas could find its way into homes from the groundwater shelf, becoming toxic for those living there. Studies from the past Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 and Prestige spill in 2002 have shown an increase in respiratory and liver issues, as well as DNA damage, among fishermen and cleanup crews exposed to the oil.
Just because small oil spills don’t make the news does not mean they are not worth our attention. When it comes to oil, even a small spill in the right conditions can be detrimental to communities. While routine maintenance and safety measures are supposed to prevent these spills, accidents still occur.
Let us know in the comments below, what are your thoughts on oil? Have you taken steps to lessen your fossil fuel consumption?