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How do responders remove the oil from the water or shorelines?

Strategies to clean up spilled oil depend on the weather, the type of oil spilled, the location of the spill, proximity to human communities or wildlife habitats, and more (Credit: NOAA).

Strategies to clean up spilled oil depend on the weather, the type of oil spilled, the location of the spill, proximity to human communities or wildlife habitats, and more (Credit: NOAA). View larger versions of the infographic on the left and the infographic on the right, and see the description below.

When oil spills happen on the water, responders may use booms, skimmers, dispersants, or even burning to remove oil. Booms are floating physical barriers to oil, which help keep it contained and away from sensitive areas, like beaches, mangroves, and wetlands. Skimmers are used off of boats to “skim” oil from the sea surface. Chemical dispersants can break up oil slicks from the surface. Sometimes responders set fire to an oil slick to try and burn the oil off the ocean’s surface.

When oil spills occur on land, or when oil from a spill reaches the shore, responders use other methods to remove the oil. Some methods are similar to on-water removal, like using booms to contain oil or carefully burning oil on the surface of water or even marsh vegetation. Responders may push oil from the shore out into near-shore water using hoses, because it is easier to remove oil from the water than it is to remove it from land. They can also remove oil from shoreline or near-shore areas using machines like vacuums or backhoes, or by hand. Responders may also use absorbent materials to soak up oil or chemicals that break it up.

Over many years of oil spill responses, scientists are still learning more about the best methods to use. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, responders learned that washing shorelines with high-pressure hot water can cause more harm than good. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA made several significant advances in oil spill modeling to better predict where oil will go once it’s been spilled and what resources it might impact when it gets there.

Infographic Description

Responding to Oil Spills at Sea

This graphic shows different methods of responding to oil spills at sea, with illustrations and text depicting each of these methods in more detail.

  • An illustration of a plane dispersing chemicals onto a slick of oil on the water’s surface, with text reading: “Dispersion: chemical dispersion is achieved by applying chemicals designed to remove oil from the water surface by breaking the oil into small droplets.” There is a detailed inset of the water’s surface, showing the oil breaking apart into smaller pieces as the chemicals reach the water.
  • An illustration of a smoking slick of oil on the water’s surface, surrounded by a floating yellow boom, with text reading: “Burning: Also referred to as in situ burning, this is the method of setting fire to freshly spilled oil, usually while still floating on the water surface. Booms: Booms are long, floating barriers used to contain or prevent the spread of spilled oil.”
  • An illustration of a vessel dispersing a yellow boom around a slick of oil, and a floating watercraft with three round appendages moving toward the oil. This craft is shown in an inset image in more detail. The text read: “Skimming: Skimming is achieved with boats equipped with a floating skimmer designed to remove thin layers of oil from the surface, often with the help of booms.”

Key Takeaway: Responders primarily use dispersion, burning, and skimming to remove oil from the surface of the water at sea.

Responding to Oil Spills on Land

This graphic shows a scene of many people working to remove oil from shoreline environments, with labels connecting to text that describes each method.

  1. A person holds a hose spraying water onto an oil slick.
    • Text: Shoreline Flushing/Washing: Water hoses can rinse oil from the shoreline into the water, where it can be more easily collected.
  2. A yellow boom surrounds and contains an oil slick near a shoreline.
    • Text: Booms: Long, floating, interconnected barriers are used to minimize the spread of spilled oil.
  3. A person holds a vacuum tube over an oil slick.
    • Text: Vacuums: Industrial-sized vacuum trucks can suction oil from the shoreline or water’s surface.
  4. Small white squares drift around in an oil slick.
    • Text: Sorbents: Specialized absorbent materials act like a sponge to pick up oil but not water.
  5. Two people hold containers of chemical cleaners and spray onto an oil slick.
    • Text: Shoreline cleaners & Biodegradation agents: Chemical cleaners that act like soaps may be used to remove oil, but require special permission. Nutrients may be added to help microbes break oil down.
  6. A yellow boom surrounds and contains a smoking oil slick on the water.
    • Text: Burning: Also referred to as “in situ burning,” freshly spilled oil can be set on fire, usually while it’s floating on the water surface and sometimes on oiled marsh vegetation, in order to effectively remove it.
  7. Two people with shovels dig at oil-covered sand.
    • Text: Manual Removal Cleanup crews using shovels or other hand tools can pick up oil from the shoreline. This method is used especially when heavy machinery cannot reach an oiled shore.
  8. A yellow bulldozer pushes oil-covered sand.
    • Text: Mechanical Removal When there is access, heavy machinery, such as backhoes or front-end loaders, may be used.

Key Takeaway: There are many ways responders can remove oil from shorelines.