Are Oil Spills Environmental Disasters? Term Paper

Pages: 8 (2386 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 12  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Transportation - Environmental Issues

Oil Spills

Monday, November 22, 2004

Dear Editor:

Environmental oil spills are one of the most hazardous and preventable 'accidents' that occur in modern day society. Though there are a number of agencies that support the ongoing transport of oil via major waterways, by and large such transport often leads to devastating consequences. It is important that stringent protocols be established for the safe transport of oil across waterways, and that environmental protection agencies work in collaboration with tanking and shipping organizations to ensure that every measure is adopted to protect the environment from the hazardous effects of oil spills.

To understand the serious impact and negative consequences of an oil spill, one must first examine the counter argument, that oil spills are not environmentally devastating. There are many including the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, LTD that would argue that transport is a necessary function and can be carried out in a manner that is safe and effective. Even companies such as Exxon Oil, which became well-known after the Valdez oil spill several years ago, would argue that oil spills are manageable and that ecosystems are capable of completely recovering from any harm done.

Many oil tanker companies and major corporations such as Exxon have adopted 'protective' measures to help guard against spills in the future. Despite these efforts however spills, small or large in nature continue to occur. Exxon even had another oil spill that was much smaller, but a spill nonetheless a few years after the Valdez disaster.

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Most of the companies involved in spills argue that the environment and ecosystems affected can recovery quickly and efficiently, and that most environments can return to a normal state of existence as they were before a spill. It is according to Dicks (1998) "unrealistic to define recovery as a return to pre-spill conditions" but rather recovery is defined as "the re-establishment of a healthy biological community in which the plants and animals characteristic of that community are present and functioning normally" (Dicks, 1998:2).

Term Paper on Are Oil Spills Environmental Disasters? Assignment

Generally the area will not have the same composition or structure that was present prior to a spill and continues to change over time.

Fortunately there are many agencies working to spread the word that oil spills are environmentally hazardous and costly. The Environmental Protection Agency is the primary advocate working to combat the serious devastation that occurs when oil is spilled into aquatic systems. The agency and many other environmental groups including Greenpeace, Sierra Club and PETA are working diligently to educate the public regarding the public health risks associated with environmental oil spills, as well as the devastation that typically occurs in natural habitats and to natural ecosystems when a spill occurs.

Environmental oil spills do not simply damage biological life; they are also a threat to the economy, altering the quality of life and changing the supply/demand ratio of oil which can cause prices to fluctuate.

Currently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an oil spill program that is working to protect the environment and the health of the public by preventing, preparing for and responding to oil spills in a rapid and effective manner. Among the offices dedicated to education and protection include the following: EPA Environmental Response Team, EP Office of Research and Development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the BP Amoco Corporation (EPA, 2004).

National Response Team is currently responsible for identifying potential hazards and identifying federal resources necessary to combat oil spills (EPA, 2004). Despite these efforts however, it is still likely that major impacts will be felt from oil spills in the future. There is only so much that can be done to help the environment recover from such major disasters.

Effects of Oil Spills

What exactly are the environmental impacts of an oil spill? The effects of an oil spill can be wide reaching. The physical environment is affected, the organisms and wildlife is affected, humans can be affected and even local fisherman and communities in the surrounding area are affected by oil spills. The impact of an oil spill is widespread. The effects can be short-term in nature or long-term in nature, a fact that many oil companies and shipping authorities overlook. Once the initial clean up process has been initiated and completed, many agencies fail to explore the long-term effects of a spill that might linger years after a recovery effort.

Dow (1999) investigated vulnerability with regard to losses from an oil spill, including fisher's ability to control their exposure to risks associated with an oil spill. Many different groups are potentially at risk from oil spills, from fishermen to wildlife. One of the regions most vulnerable to oil spills is the Strait of Malacca, upon which more than 30,000 ships per year pass. The Strait is one of the areas that have been examined in elaborate detail by environmental protection agencies (Dow, 1999). Evidence suggests that when oil spills have occurred in the past, these fishering communities have been negatively impacted and many have suffered from complete loss of business or their livelihood for some time (Down, 1999).

Major shipping companies and oil corporations argue that there are risk management efforts that can be put in place to minimize the effects of a spill. However, in the case of the fishing villages and communities located along the Strait of Malacca for example, there are currently many risk management efforts in place to reduce the risk of oil spills, but even despite these efforts oil spills occasionally and generally the oil spill response has the capability of cleaning up oil in the water only (Dow, 1999).

Most notably oil spills have a devastating impact on the environment and the wildlife living in that environment. After an Exxon oil spill on New Years Day of 1990, more than 700 birds were killed and the shoreline ecosystem destroyed (Nixon, 1995). The disruption of the life of one biological species can impact the lives of many others, a fact that is often forgotten when one considers only the short-term effects of an environment accident such as an oil spill.

Among the effects of an oil spill include economic losses. These typically come in the form of changes in demand in supply, loss of wages and property damage or losses (Argue et. al, 1995).

Oil that is spilled into water can harm the organisms living in that body of water and those on the surface. When these organisms are damaged it is possible that portions of the food chain are damaged as well. There are many different factors that can impact the severity of damage that occurs after an oil spill. There are many organisms that are immediately killed or injured after contact with oil, while the lethal and toxic effects for other species may linger longer and be more subtle in nature (EPA, 2004).

Birds and mammals living in aquatic areas are typically damaged in the following ways: (1) by direct physical contact with oil, (2) via toxic contamination, (3) through destruction of food sources and habitats and (4) by reproductive problems (EPA, 2004). Each of these areas is important to examine in greater detail.

Most bird's feathers are damaged by contact with the oil that can cause matting of the fur and subsequently result in the birds freezing to death. Other birds may drown while still others lose the ability to fly. These are all examples of physical injuries and complications resulting from the oil spill. Toxic contamination comes in the form of oil vapors, which can be inhaled and damage the surrounding wild life's lungs, central nervous system and even liver. Animals in the area immediately surrounding the spill may also accidentally ingest the oil, which can damage the intestinal tract.

Oil spills by nature destroy the habitats that most animals live in, and in the process of doing so generally result in a reduction or complete destruction of food resources. Predators that rely on marine life species for food can ingest contaminated prey and also be exposed to oil, leading to further illness and injury. At other times the animals directly affected by oil contamination will have an unusual odor or smell, and predators will not eat them, resulting in starvation as food sources dwindle.

Reproductive problems are not uncommon among organisms and animals exposed to oil spills. The viscosity of the oil often smothers eggs by preventing gas exchange (EPA, 2004). In addition developmental delays have been found in bird embryos that have been exposed to oil at some time during their gestations.

Oil that spills into the environment immediately results in marked changes in the physical landscape. Surface organisms and aquatic animals that are part of a much broader ecosystem are put at risk.

In some areas it is possible that animals and habitats may recover relatively quickly, but by and large a recovery often takes many years. While the short-term effects of many spills are often predictable, the long-term effects are not.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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