Oil spill information for kids

Updated February 21, 2017

When people say "oil spill," it sounds simple: someone spilt some oil. What happens when they spill oil where you can't clean it up easily? The most difficult place to clean up an oil spill is on the ocean, but not all oil spills happen at sea; some happen on land. Both kinds can kill animals and poison water, and clean-up is expensive. Technology offers some means of controlling spills after they happen, but oil spills cause environmental damage before they are contained.

Reasons Oil Spills Happen

Usually, oil spills happen after an accident. A truck full of oil may tip over and spill oil on a highway and the ground next to the highway. A ship carrying crude oil may be caught in a storm or strike a reef, tearing open its oil tanks. A pipe carrying crude oil through a wilderness or underwater may burst. In all these cases, the spill is the result of an accident.

If someone spills oil deliberately, they may not understand that what they're doing is bad. If they do understand that it's bad, then they may be terrorists. This is called eco-terrorism.

Controlling an Oil Spill

"Containment" means control. When you contain an oil spill, you control the size and location of the spill. Containing an oil spill also controls the environmental damage an oil spill can cause.

The technology for containing oil spills on land is both old and new. Most refineries have earth dams around storage areas and on both sides of piping, so that spill control begins as soon as a spill begins. Sometimes, spill clean-up means digging up dirt that's been contaminated by an oil spill; the earth is then placed in special disposal sites. Oil spills on roads or concrete floors can be cleaned up with oil absorbent clay that resembles cat litter.

At sea, oil floats on top of the water, forming an oil slick. Long flexible tubes called containment booms are filled with oil absorbent material and placed around the oil slick to minimise its spread. Special ships, called skimmers, were developed in the 1990s to skim oil from the surface of the water. Before skimmers, detergents were used to "sink" or disperse the oil, which hid the oil spill but did not clean it up.

Laws About Oil Spills

The first laws intended to prevent oil spills were the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Refuse Act of 1899. Both of these laws were declared unconstitutional in 1921, but the U. S. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Control in 1924. This law prohibited dumping oil in any body of water where boats sailed or along the coast of the United States.

The Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966 said many of the same things as the Oil Pollution Control Act. The difference was that the new law said that those dumping the oil would have to pay for the clean up and pay for any environmental damage.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 formally defines an oil spill: if a sheen of oil shows on the water, that is an oil spill.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was the result of an oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez, that happened in Prince William Sound, Alaska. While those that dump oil are still responsible, the Act sets aside tax dollars to cover the huge costs of clean up. (REF 9)

Biggest Oil Spills

According the U. S. Minerals Management Service, part of the U. S. Department of the Interior, three gallons of crude oil can create a sheen one acre or more in size. Most oil spills are much larger than that.

The largest oil spills at sea happen when crude oil tankers are wrecked because of weather or have an accident. The largest ship-related oil spill was in 1979, when the tanker Atlantic Empress spilt over 2.1 million barrels of crude oil on the island of Tobago, in the West Indies.

The largest oil spill on land was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi troops spilt nearly 110 million barrels of oil in an act of eco-terrorism.

How You Can Help

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers ways that we can all help prevent oil spills.

America depends on oil; gasoline, most plastics, diesel fuel for trucks and buses, all are made from some part of crude oil. If we use more oil, more oil has to be transported. This means a greater risk of oil spills. We can help reduce the risk of oil spills by taking a bus, walking or riding a bicycle the next time we need to go some place.

We can also avoid pouring oil or oily waste in the garbage or down our sewers. In the garbage, this oil goes to the dump, where it can pollute groundwater. In the sewers, it can also end up in the groundwater following treatment. Taking these simple steps will make a better environment.

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About the Author

Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.