Oil Spills: The Story Behind the Clean-Up (U. Khan)

The recent oil leak in the North Saskatchewan River has realized the fear of many citizens in regards to pipelines. The leak has allowed close to 250,000 litres of oil to spill into the river, and jeopardised the water supply of thousands of people in the nearby city of Prince Albert. A lot can be said about the viability of pipelines and whether their benefits outweigh their risks, but in this blog I want to talk about what happens after an incident like a leak or spill. There are a lot of different cleanup methods that can be used in these situations, and many new ones are currently being developed in an effort to clean the affected areas at a faster rate.

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Booms placed around the shoreline in the North Saskatchewan River following the July 20th pipeline leak. Source: CTV News

We have all seen oil booms that are brought in to contain oil spills in oceans or lakes. They are one of the most recognizable forms of oil spill containment measures. Among their many functions is to reduce the speed of a slick, and protect biologically sensitive areas. Once the oil slick has been separated from the surrounding regions, skimmers can then remove the oil from the water. They act without changing any of the physical or chemical properties of the oil. The effectiveness of oil booms depends on many factors including the wind speed and size of the waves.

Another method that can potentially be used to clean up oil spills is biodegradation. Biodegradation involves the use of microorganisms to break down oil particles. These microorganisms consist of bacteria that naturally break down hydrocarbons such as those present in crude oil. The hydrocarbons act as a carbon source and energy source for these microorganisms. The microorganisms also need an adequate supply of nitrogen and phosphorous to complete this reaction, and an excess of these nutrients is often introduced at the spill site to aid the process of biodegradation. This method was used in the clean-up following the Exxon Valdez Oil spill in 1989, and was a great success.

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Diagram illustrating on site Biodegradation of an underground contaminant. Source: ChickadeeUsa

Oil leaks that occur underground can be very hard to clean up. Oil can potentially leak into water aquifers underground and cause problems to the drinking supply of nearby cities. One way to combat these types of spills is to pump nutrients into the ground upstream from the leak site, allow the microorganisms to break down the contaminants, and remove the excess waste downstream from the site. That way the microorganisms already present in the soil can breakdown the toxic chemicals, and the waste removed from the ground. If the spilled chemicals are more complex hydrocarbons, soil matter can be removed from a spill area and taken to an industrial bioreactor, where specific temperature conditions can be created that aid microorganisms in converting the harmful chemicals into harmless by-products.

As part of the Federal Budget 2016, the government announced a $237 million investment in Genome Canada. Genome Canada is an organization that funds genetic research across Canada and promotes scientific breakthroughs. Recently the organization decided to give a grant to UofT Professor Elizabeth Edwards for her research on microorganisms that break down pollutants in the environment. In the past, these microbes would require oxygen in the area where they were being used to break down chemicals. The work done by Professor Edwards has developed microbial cultures that do not require oxygen as they break down harmful chemicals. The implications for this are immense, as clean-up crews no longer have to aerate and separate all the soil at a spill site to allow oxygen to reach the microorganisms. Thus spills can be cleaned up with less effort and manpower.

The government is doing a great job with supporting new scientific ideas that can solve the problems posed by oil spills. As we find out what caused the spill in Saskatchewan and look ahead at the future of pipelines in this country, we must remember to be prepared to deal with these unfortunate scenarios is a quick and effective way.

 

 

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