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Scientists Reduce The Impact Of Oil Spills

New Zealand scientists are figuring out the best way to clean up after an oil spill.

Research led by Leigh Stevens of the Cawthron Institute has been looking at how chemical dispersants can be used to reduce the impact of oil spills.

“Science may not be able to stop oil spills, but it can ensure a better response when spills occur,” said Mr Stevens.

“The best way to reduce the impact of an oil spill is to stop the oil reaching the shore. One way of doing this is to use physical barriers known as booms to contain or deflect oil so it can be collected.

“However it is not always easy to get the right equipment and trained staff to spill sites. Weather conditions can also limit the effectiveness of using physical barriers. Even under ideal conditions, it is uncommon for physical methods to recover more than 10 to 20 per cent of spilt oil,” said Mr Stevens.

The research, which is an investment of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, has looked at using alternatives to physical methods such as chemicals which disperse and dilute the oil into the sea.

“As chemical dispersants can be quickly applied to large areas of spilt oil they often provide the quickest, most effective and most environmentally friendly response option,” said Mr Stevens.

“With any use of chemicals, there is a natural concern that they may cause additional harm to the environment. Modern oil spill dispersants have very low toxicity, most are less toxic than household dishwashing detergents.

“Almost without exception the environment will recover more quickly if oil can be dispersed into the sea before it reaches a shoreline.”

The researchers have been working closely with the Maritime Safety Authority to produce guidelines to help people dealing with an oil spill decide whether or not chemical dispersants should be used.

“Our research does not provide hard and fast rules for using chemical dispersants, as every spill will be unique. What they do provide is a comprehensive checklist of the issues that need to be considered,” said Mr Stevens.

“The guidelines represent a significant advance in the information readily available to decision-makers and greatly improve the ability to respond appropriately to oil spills in New Zealand marine waters.”

The guidelines have been formally adopted by the Maritime Safety Authority and will soon be made available to all Regional Councils, they are also attracting interest from a number of international spill response organisations.


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