The impact of slicks generated by minor, occasional incidences of discharge of oil at sea or in rivers is often thought of in terms of tar-like patches and oiled birds. The oil sticks to rocks, boats, skin, feathers… However it does not stop there. Limpets in rock pools affected by the oil can temporarily lose their adherence capacity, much to the delight of prawns and crabs. Oysters in farms can acquire an “oil-like” taste, which can take several weeks, or even several months, to disappear. Small localised populations can show a variety of known effects, which are rarely fatal for the flora and fauna, but quite real and sometimes detrimental to certain coastal activities.
Symbolic image: an oiled bird
When an oil spill occurs, these known effects are quickly forgotten in a dramatic image of perceived doom: that of a “black death” which destroys all life in its path, leaving a desert in its wake for years, or even generations, to come. This image, often largely conveyed by the media via the familiar image of an oiled bird, dominates our thoughts. However, a few months later - or a little more than a year in the worst case scenario - the fishing boats come in with fish in their nets and flocks of seabirds in their wake. The seaweed fields are still there, as are the populations of coastal pools.
The only visible remnants of the oil spill are the waste storage facilities, gradually emptied and rehabilitated, mud still impregnated with oil at the base of estuaries, and marks of oil on the rocks and cliffs. After a few years, the sole reminders of the disaster that can be found are a piece of wreck or a giant anchor in a small port, photos on café walls, the unextinguished anger of local people and in some cases a major lawsuit. Was the ecological catastrophe predicted by scientists and the media at the time of the accident in fact an excessive dramatisation? Or is the apparent return to normal a deceptive impression? These two questions bring us to a fundamental issue: the evolution of oil spilled in water.
Reaction to the Exxon Valdez spill
"The excitement of the season had just begun, and then, we heard the news, oil in the water, lots of oil killing lots of water. It is too shocking to understand. Never in the millennium of our tradition have we thought it possible for the water to die, but it is true."
"We walked the beaches, but the snails and the barnacles and the chitons are falling off the rocks, dead. We caught our first fish, the annual first fish, the traditional delight of all; but it got sent to the state to be tested for oil. No first fish this year." (Chief Walter Meganack, Port Graham, 1989).
The Exxon Valdez disaster: readings on a modern social problem, 1997 Edition, by J. Steven Picou, Duane A. Gill and Maurie J. Cohen
Did you know?
Cleaning minor oil stains
On the skin:
Spread butter or oil on the affected area and remove after a few minutes. Then wash the skin with soap and water.
Apply a small amount of lamp oil (liquid fuel sold for heating appliances) to the stained material to remove the oil.