Oil and Chemical Spill

An oil and chemical spill is one of the most devastating environmental disasters that can happen because it effects people, animals, the land and the coastal waters ways. They can kill wildlife, destroy habitats, and contaminate critical resources in the food chain.

They can also wreak havoc on the economies of coastal communities by forcing the closure of fisheries, driving away tourists, or temporarily shutting down navigation routes. And these environmental and economic damages can linger for decades.

Every year it happens a thousand times around the nation. These spills range from small ship collisions to fuel transfer mishaps to massive events like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Oil and Chemical Spill

Causes of Spills

Most oil and chemical spill incidents are caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, and storage facilities, usually while these hazards are being transported to us, its users.

Hazardous materials come in the form of explosives, flammable and combustible substances, poisons, and radioactive materials.

These substances are most often released as a result of transportation accidents or because of chemical accidents in manufacturing plants or refineries.

Other causes oil and chemical spill incidents

  • people making mistakes or being careless
  • equipment breaking down
  • natural disasters such as hurricanes
  • deliberate acts by terrorists, countries at war, vandals, or illegal dumpers

Oil Spill Hazards

Oil floats on salt water (the ocean) and usually floats on fresh water (rivers and lakes). Very heavy oil can sometimes sink in fresh water, but this happens very rarely.

Oil usually spreads out rapidly across the water surface to form a thin layer that we call an oil slick. As the spreading process continues, the layer becomes thinner and thinner, finally becoming a very thin layer called a sheen, which often looks like a rainbow. (You may have seen sheens on roads or parking lots after a rain.)

Depending on the circumstances, oil spills can be very harmful to marine birds and mammals, and also can harm fish and shellfish. You may have seen dramatic pictures of oiled birds and sea otters that have been affected by oil spills.

It destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water-repelling abilities of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements.

Many birds and animals also ingest (swallow) it when they try to clean themselves, which can poison them. Depending on just where and when a spill happens, from just a few up to hundreds or thousands of birds and mammals can be killed or injured.

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Oil and Chemical Spill Clean Up

Which methods and tools people choose for clean up depends on the circumstances of each event:

  • the weather,
  • the type and amount of oil spilled,
  • how far away from shore the oil has spilled,
  • whether or not people live in the area, what kinds of bird and animal habitats are in the area, and other factors.

Different cleanup methods work on different types of beaches and with different kinds of oil.

For example, road equipment works very well on sand beaches, but can't be used in marshes or on beaches with big boulders or cobble (rounded stones that are larger than pebbles, but smaller than boulders).

Methods used for clean up:

  • booms, which are floating barriers to oil (for example, a big boom may be placed around a tanker that is leaking oil, to collect the oil).
  • skimmers, which are boats that skim spilled oil from the water surface.
  • sorbents, which are big sponges used to absorb oil.
  • chemical dispersants and biological agents, which break down the oil into its chemical constituents.
  • in-situ burning, which is a method of burning freshly-spilled oil, usually while it is floating on the water.
  • washing oil off beaches with either high-pressure or low-pressure hoses.
  • vacuum trucks, which can vacuum spilled oil off of beaches or the water surface.
  • shovels and road equipment, which are sometimes used to pick up oil or move oiled beach sand and gravel down to where it can be cleaned by being tumbled around in the waves.

Chemical Spill & Hazardous Materials

Chemicals are found everywhere. They purify drinking water, increase crop production, and simplify household chores. But chemicals also can be hazardous to humans or the environment if used or released improperly.

Hazards can occur during production, storage, transportation, use, or disposal. You and your community are at risk if a chemical is used unsafely or released in harmful amounts into the environment where you live, work, or play.

Hazardous materials in various forms can cause death, serious injury, long-lasting health effects, and damage to buildings, homes, and other property. Many products containing hazardous chemicals are used and stored in homes routinely. These products are also shipped daily on the nation's highways, railroads, waterways, and pipelines.

Chemical manufacturers are one source of hazardous materials, but there are many others, including service stations, hospitals, and hazardous materials waste sites.

Varying quantities of hazardous materials are manufactured, used, or stored at an estimated 4.5 million facilities in the United States--from major industrial plants to local dry cleaning establishments or gardening supply stores.

How to Prepare for an Oil and Chemical Spill

Contact your local emergency management office to find out how the public will be notified in the event of an oil and chemical spill incident and the actions the public must take in the event of a hazardous release.

Listen to local radio or television stations for detailed information and instructions. Follow the instructions carefully. You should stay away from the area to minimize the risk of contamination. Remember that some toxic chemicals are odorless.

  • Alert people in immediate area of the spill.
  • Determine the chemical nature of the spill and check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
  • If the material is highly toxic or hazardous, call 911 from a campus phone or EH&S at (310) 825-5689.
  • If a volatile, toxic or flammable material is spilled, immediately warn everyone to evacuate the area, and turn off all electrical and spark producing equipment if possible.
  • Use a fire extinguisher to extinguish any flames if applicable.

Add these items to your Disaster Survival Kit

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Duct tape
  • Scissors

If you are asked to Evacuate

  • Do so immediately.
  • Stay tuned to a radio or television for information on evacuation routes, temporary shelters, and procedures.
  • Follow the routes recommended by the authorities--shortcuts may not be safe. Leave at once.
  • If you have time, minimize contamination in the house by closing all windows, shutting all vents, and turning off attic fans.
  • Take pre-assembled disaster supplies.

Remember to help your neighbors who may require special assistance--infants,elderly people and people with disabilities.

If you are caught Outside

  • Stay upstream, uphill, and upwind! In general, try to go at least one-half mile (usually 8-10 city blocks) from the danger area. Move away from the accident scene and help keep others away.
  • Do not walk into or touch any spilled liquids, airborne mists, or condensed solid chemical deposits. Try not to inhale gases, fumes and smoke. If possible, cover mouth with a cloth while leaving the area.
  • Stay away from accident victims until the hazardous material has been identified.

If you are in your Car

  • Stop and seek shelter in a permanent building. If you must remain in your car, keep car windows and vents closed and shut off the air conditioner and heater.

If you are asked to stay Inside

  • Bring pets inside.
  • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows. Close vents, fireplace dampers, and as many interior doors as possible.
  • Turn off air conditioners and ventilation systems. In large buildings, set ventilation systems to 100 percent recirculation so that no outside air is drawn into the building. If this is not possible, ventilation systems should be turned off.
  • Go into the pre-selected shelter room. This room should be above ground and have the fewest openings to the outside.
  • Seal gaps under doorways and windows with wet towels or plastic sheeting and duct tape.
  • Seal gaps around window and air conditioning units, bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans, and stove and dryer vents with duct tape and plastic sheeting, wax paper or aluminum wrap.
  • Use material to fill cracks and holes in the room, such as those around pipes.
  • If gas or vapors could have entered the building, take shallow breaths through a cloth or a towel. Avoid eating or drinking any food or water that may be contaminated.

Shelter Safety for Sealed Rooms

In the event of an oil and chemical spill you may be asked to shelter at home, if so, here are some tips for creating a temporary safe room in your house.

  • Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide build-up for up to five hours, assuming a normal breathing rate while resting.
  • Also you should ventilate the shelter when the emergency has passed to avoid breathing contaminated air still inside the shelter.
  • However, local officials are unlikely to recommend the public shelter in a sealed room for more than 2-3 hours because the effectiveness of such sheltering diminishes with time as the contaminated outside air gradually seeps into the shelter. At this point, evacuation from the area is the better protective action to take.

After a Hazardous Materials Incident

The following are guidelines for the period following a hazardous oil and chemical spill incident:

  • Return home only when authorities say it is safe. Open windows and vents and turn on fans to provide ventilation.
  • Act quickly if you have come in to contact with or have been exposed to hazardous chemicals. Do the following:
    • Follow decontamination instructions from local authorities. You may be advised to take a thorough shower, or you may be advised to stay away from water and follow another procedure.
    • Seek medical treatment for unusual symptoms as soon as possible.
    • Place exposed clothing and shoes in tightly sealed containers. Do not allow them to contact other materials. Call local authorities to find out about proper disposal.
    • Advise everyone who comes in to contact with you that you may have been exposed to a toxic substance.
  • Find out from local authorities how to clean up your land and property.
  • Report any lingering vapors or other hazards to your local emergency services office.