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Land Risk Management Research

Oil Spill Cleanup

Oil Spills
Oil Spills

The United States produces, distributes, and consumes large quantities of oil every year to fuel our factories, power plants, and homes, and to provide transportation. From the production, storage, transport, and use of oil, an estimated 18,000-24,000 oil spills are reported, and 10-25 million gallons of oil are spilled annually. These oil releases threaten public health and safety by contaminating drinking water, causing fire and explosion hazards, diminishing air and water quality, compromising agriculture, destroying recreational areas, and wasting nonrenewable resources. Oil spills also have a severe environmental impact on ecosystems by harming or killing wildlife and plants, and destroying habitats and food.

EPA researchers in the Office of Research and Development (ORD) are committed to providing environmental managers with the tools, models, and methods they need to better understand the fate and effects of oil spills on ecosystems and to effectively clean them up. These researchers conduct research on:

  • Bioremediation
  • Mitigation (chemical and biological countermeasures for oil spill cleanup)
  • Fate and effects of non-petroleum and biodiesel oils in saltwater and freshwater systems
  • Flow characteristics of oil spills

Application and Impact

The research program has improved the ability of environmental managers to predict, evaluate, and respond to oil spills. Research contributions include the following:

New Dispersant Protocol
Scientists developed a new Baffled Flask Test (BFT) for testing dispersant effectiveness and representing more accurately the over-and-under mixing energy of breaking waves at sea. More information on dispersant effectiveness.

Bioremediation Guidelines
Scientists developed guidelines for the bioremediation of marine shorelines, freshwater wetlands, and salt marshes for use by spill responders.

New Treatment Approach
Researchers are developing a new approach to treat vegetable oil spills in freshwater environments.

Wave Tank Research
A wave tank at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, has been used to improve international scientific understanding and responses to oil spills at sea. ORD scientists are involved in this international effort with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Research has led to improved scientific understanding of the factors affecting dispersant products used to mitigate the effects of oil spills on open waters.

Tidal Marsh Research
Lock Lake in East Patchogue, New York, is a tidal marsh where EPA scientists study the waterway's natural processes, such as water flow. The research is being applied to understand the impacts of oil spills on tidal marshes. Research at the lake has improved understanding of the characteristics of flow to a marsh, provided data to evaluate subsurface and surface water interactions, determined transport characteristics of spilled and dispersed oil, and led to the development of simulation models to reproduce and predict transport of oil spills.

NCP Product Schedule Support
Key research was done towards development of a list of products for use in oil spill cleanup. The list, developed under Subpart J (40 CFR Part 300.910) of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP), includes current dispersants, surface washing agents, bioremediation agents, and miscellaneous oil spill control agents. Research has been done on which dispersants will be more effective at the low temperatures at which deep water spills (like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010) occur, and which will be more effective at the higher temperatures that surface spills encounter.  More information on spill prevention rule.


Albert D. Venosa
U.S. EPA National Risk Management Research Laboratory
Land Remediation and Pollution Control Division
26 W. Martin Luther King Dr.
Mail Code: 190
Cincinnati, OH 45268

Risk Mangement Research | Air and Climate Change Research | Water Research | Ecosystems Restoration Research | Land Risk Management Research | Technology: Sustainable Technologies Research, Environmental Technology Verification Program (ETV), and Technology Assessments

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