Water and Oil: Archenemies

This week’s blog was written by Camilla Sherman, WCO intern and oil obstructer 

We learn in science class that water and oil do not mix. The two just don’t seem to get along. Not only do water and oil not mix chemically, they also should not be mixed for many other reasons too.hydrophobic oil

Oil Spills

Throughout history, as a species, humans always want more. This especially applies to wanting more access to oil to help run more and more luxury items of today’s society. The first item that pops into mind is the car, but other items that utilize fossil fuels include: planes, heating systems for our homes, plastics, medicines, shoes, toothpaste, TVs, etc. This is a huge list that goes on for what seems like forever. Our high demand for more of these products has led to more oil rigs that are extracting more oil than ever. One of the big problems that comes along with this oil economy is oil spills.

oil in ocean

Oil from a tanker on a beach in Wales, 1996

When oil first spills into the ocean, it forms an oil slick on the top of the water that is spread by waves, water currents, and wind force. But what happens to the oil while it sits in the water? Some oil types will partially evaporate, however, the left behind oil is much more dense and viscous than before. Depending on the type, oil can sometimes disperse into the water and become seemingly invisible or it may form a thick mousse with the water. A part of the oil may sink, but the remainder will eventually congeal into tar balls.

Once the oil reaches the coast, it begins to interact with the beach sand and other sediments, plants, and above ground habitats for both humans and wildlife. Oil on the shore causes erosion and contamination of everything it touches.

The effects of oil on marine life are devastating. Oil destroys the insulating ability of mammals with fur, like sea otters, and the water repellancy of feathers for birds. This exposes these creatures to the harsh elements and can lead to death from hypothermia. Wildlife may also ingest the poisonous oil while cleaning themselves. If the oil becomes mixed in the water column, it can harm fish and shellfish as well. These creatures experience bodily malfunctions and their egg and larva survival drops.

oil bird

A bird covered in fuel oil from a tanker spill sits on the beach near Mallipo, South Korea, Dec. 8, 2007. (AP Photo/ Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, HO)

Luckily, there are heroes out there who are constantly working hard to clean-up after oil spills, not unlike our Athens water reclamation heroes. Some are specialist who know how to properly clean off marine animals and return them to their homes in the ocean. There are also specialists that work on removing the oil from the ocean waters. The workers may try to contain the spill and then use skimmers to get the oil slick off of the top of the water or they may work to speed up the biodegradation process of the oil. Recovery rates of an ecosystem after a spill vary depending on the type of oil, how much oil was spilled, the type of climate in the area, and other factors. As a reference, the residue of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the Alaskan coast happened 25 years ago and there is still oil on the beach scientists say will be there for decades to come.

Oil From Society

The oil waste in the ocean comes from many other sources besides oil spills. Most of the oil in our oceans is oily stormwater drainage from human waste. This comes from cities, farms, unregulated boating, and untreated waste disposal from factories. Approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil ends up in the ocean each year, and over half is from these sources and the careless use of oil and oil products.

develop Cali port-oil

This busy California port shows one source of oil in coastal waters. Notice the dark spot in the foreground.

Oil in Our Pipes

Not unlike the problems oil causes in the ocean and on our beaches, it causes problems in our pipes too. It is hard to think about what happens to the oils that we put down our sinks once they wash away because we can no longer see them. The oils are out of sight and out of mind. To end this blog, I want to remind everyone that this is what can happen when you put your oils down the drain. Remember, put your fats and oils into the trash, not down the drain!

fog clog

This is a clog in a water pipe. Oil clogs cause sewage back-ups into your homes and costly repair bills.

This picture above is of a FOG clog. FOG stands for fats, oils, and grease. These are the 3 big no-nos to consider when cleaning up after a meal and washing things down the drain. The oils may start as a liquid but they will solidify in the pipes. FOG coats the pipes and causes other debris to stick in the pipe, leading to a clog. The workers at the Athens water reclamation facilities work hard to clean up our water before it goes back into the river and eventually becomes drinking water again. Let’s try to make their jobs easier by thinking about what we are putting down our drains!


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