Oil rigs, wells, pipelines, and tankers are located throughout the world, and the mismanagement of this equipment has led to some of the world’s worst water pollution disasters. Oceans and marine life suffer greatly when oil is spilled into their natural habitat. With the proper security measures in place, many of these incidents could be avoided, thereby protecting our wildlife and the precious ecosystems of the ocean. The following are just three of a number of water pollution disasters caused by oil.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
On March 23, 1989, the 987-foot Exxon Valdez left its port with over 50 million gallons of crude oil, bound for Long Beach, California. The tanker was a relatively new one in the Exxon Shipping Company’s fleet, and though tankers had been carrying oil on this route for 12 years without major incident, the Exxon Valdez ran aground at Bligh Reef around midnight on March 24. Eleven of the ship’s cargo tanks ruptured, and more than 10 million gallons of oil poured into Prince William Sound. While this spill is not even in the top 50 largest globally, it is considered one of the worst in terms of damage to the environment, as it covered over 400 miles of ocean and ultimately impacted 1,300 miles of shoreline.
The animals and birds native to Prince William Sound were particularly at risk, as oil can destroy the insulation value of their fur and feathers, hampering their ability to regulate body temperature and causing them to die of hypothermia. Oil can also kill wildlife if they consume it in the process of scavenging or trying to clean themselves. If the oil does not kill them, it can hinder reproduction, cause blindness, or impair organ function. While the exact number of animals killed or injured in the Exxon Valdez oil spill isn’t known, more than 1,000 sea otter carcasses and 35,000 bird carcasses were reported in the aftermath. However, the bodies of animals that were saturated with oil are believed to have sunk, so the carcasses aren’t an accurate reflection of the actual impact.
Cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill lasted four consecutive summers and cost Exxon over $2 billion. Ten thousand workers cleaned beaches using high-pressure water treatments, backhoes, and a technique called bioremediation, in which fertilizer is spread on a beach to help grow bacteria that will eat the hydrocarbons in oil. While the man-powered cleanup effort was considerable, it is believed that winter storms were more effective in cleaning up the spill. Today, more than 25 years later, some beaches remain oiled.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Deepwater Horizon was an oil rig owned by Transocean, an offshore drilling company. BP was leasing the rig from Transocean when it exploded on April 20, 2010. The rig was located 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, which is why this incident is sometimes called the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The explosion was caused by a massive surge of natural gas through the concrete seal of the oil well. The natural gas ignited on the rig’s platform, killing 11 crew members. Two days after this explosion, the rig capsized and sank, and oil began escaping from the damaged well at an estimated rate of 60,000 barrels every day.
BP attempted multiple solutions to halt the leaking oil, but most of them failed. Oil and methane gas escaped from the leak for 87 days. An estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010. Over 1,000 miles of Gulf Coast beach were impacted by the spill. While some of the oil floated to the surface of the ocean (as would be expected, because oil is lighter than water), much of it gathered in a 22-mile-wide oil plume about 3,000 feet below the surface. There are also estimates that a large portion of the oil ended up on the seafloor.
Gulf War Oil Disaster
One of the worst oil spills in history was an intentional wartime act. In January 1991, during the midst of the Gulf War, Iraqi troops opened the valves on oil rigs, pipelines, and tankers, and set fire to oil wells in the desert of Kuwait. These measures were an attempt to keep American troops from landing. Cleanup efforts were hampered by a number of factors, such as the surrounding war-stricken areas.
Estimates of the amount of oil released into the Persian Gulf remain speculative, but some report as much as 10 million barrels. Coral reefs, marine wildlife, and the fishing industry were decimated by the disaster.