The Environmental Impact of a Diesel Fuel Spill

Updated March 23, 2017

Diesel fuel spills result from accidental or deliberate release into the environment by humans. The impact of the spill depends on how quickly it spills, what kind of ecosystem it spreads to and the success or failure of containment measures. Diesel oil can affect large numbers of wildlife and plant life. Humans whose livelihood depends on a healthy ecosystem can also suffer as a result.


The drilling, transport and other activities involved in processing diesel can result in events like pipeline breaks, well blowouts, tank leaks, and ship collisions. Water runoff from land also carries diesel into groundwater.


The severity and impact of a diesel spill depends on factors like the terrain and type of soil involved or if the fuel spills into water, the currents in the area, wind speed, temperature and surrounding ecosystem, as well as the amount of fuel in the water.


Diesel, a relatively light fuel that evaporates fairly quickly compared to heavier oils, does not usually remain in the environment for more than a few days; however, before it evaporates, it can ignite and explode. Also, the toxicity of diesel can kill plants and animals, including humans who come into contact with it.

Animals Affected

Diesel floats on water and affects those animals who spend their time on or at the surface of the water or the surrounding land. Some examples include birds, marine mammals and shellfish. The oil coats the feathers of birds, hampering their ability to fly, float and stay warm. Neither can otters and seals stay warm if they can't clean their fur. The oil can irritate the eyes and skin of seals, whales and porpoises who breathe at the surface, and ingestion of the oil can kill them.

Plants Affected

Diesel floating on the water contaminates plankton and algae. It also prevents light from penetrating into the water, thus interfering with their photosynthesis. Because these plants form the base of the marine food chain, the entire ecosystem can suffer.

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About the Author

Lexa W. Lee is a New Orleans-based writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has contributed to "Central Nervous System News" and the "Journal of Naturopathic Medicine," as well as several online publications. Lee holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from Reed College, a naturopathic medical degree from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine and served as a postdoctoral researcher in immunology.