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How To Clean an Oil Spill

Spilled oil floats on seawater and presents an incredible environmental threat. When facing such a crisis, it's important to know how to clean up.


  • Step 1: Consider physical cleaning methods if the oil reaches shore. Soak up oil with sorbent materials, rake or bulldoze oil-covered rocks and sand, or use pressure-washing to clean off organic and inorganic materials -- the less oil left on the ground, the better.
  • FACT: At its height, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico leaked oil at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day.
  • Step 2: Place a fireproof boom around the spill and perform a controlled, in-situ burn of the oil. Then, remove the resulting residue from the water with a skimmer. Be careful, though -- burning oil can harm microorganisms on the water's surface and reduce air quality for hundreds of miles.
  • Step 3: Spread gelling agents over a large oil slick to make the petroleum clump together for easier removal, dispersing agents to break the oil into small droplets that allow it to be diluted, or fertilizing agents that speed biodegradation.
  • Step 4: Employ mechanical methods. Place booms in the water to contain the oil. Then, use skimmers to scoop oil off the water's surface and sorbents to soak up the oil.
  • TIP: Make sure any sorbent materials you use are both oil-attracting and water-repellent.
  • Step 5: Identify the spill's severity. If there is no possibility that the spill will threaten wildlife, costal areas, or marine industries, leave it alone -- the sun, wind, current, and waves will eventually disperse the oil.

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