Oil spills are a serious problem because they can cause harm to humans, animals, plants, and—when they happen in coastal areas—marine life.
Though booms are widely used to contain offshore oil spills, they are not always effective. There are some disadvantages to using oil containment booms.
This guide will explore everything you need to know about booms, including their cons. Starting with a brief introduction into what exactly an oil spill containment boom is and what they are used for.
What Are Spill Booms?
A boom is a buoyant, fence-like piece of equipment that is used as a floating barrier for oil spill response and clean up.
It is designed to be placed on top of the water to keep an oil spill in one place. This prevents the hydrocarbons from spreading and contaminating ecologically sensitive areas like estuaries and coastlines.
Spill containment booms come in various sizes and shapes, including sorbent booms which soak up the spilled oil. The kind you use will depend on the amount of oil that has been spilled and the location.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Oil Containment Booms?
Though they are widely used as an emergency response tool, there are some disadvantages to utilizing containment booms to manage oil spills.
- Booms are expensive: you may have to spend thousands of dollars on a single boom. The larger the boom, the more expensive it will be. The style you choose is a big factor in its cost; inflatable booms usually carry a higher price tag than foam-core fence booms, for example.
- They only contain the oil: conventional booms act like a floating barrier and do not remove oil from the environment. Instead, they keep oil slicks confined to a certain area. It is necessary to use specialty equipment like skimmers and absorbents to remove the spilled oil. Or, dispersants that help break the spilled oil down into smaller droplets.
- The boom can be difficult to deploy: they require training to properly deploy, which may limit their usefulness. It may also be necessary to tow the boom into open water and anchor it to some kind of mooring. Rough seas can make these tasks difficult and also put the safety of spill clean up responders at risk.
- They are reliant on water conditions: booms perform most effectively in calm waters. When a body of water is too rough, the boom won’t work well. That’s because strong winds and wave action can allow oil to wash over the top of the boom, thus making it ineffective.
- Cleaning and storage can be problematic: solid-core foam floats provide good buoyancy for booms, however, can also be bulky. And thus, need a lot of storage space when the boom is not in use. Likewise, although polyurethane or PVC construction materials are typically easy to clean, the awkward shape of solid floatation booms can make this more difficult.
Other Options for Oil Spill Cleanup on Water
If you don’t like the sound of containment booms, fear not. There are other methods that can be used for oil spill containment and clean up. However, they are typically done in conjunction with oil containment booms. Therefore, they are not effective enough to be used as alternatives alone.
One method is to use skimmers. This equipment “skims” the oil layer off the top of the surface of the water. Then the collected liquid can be transported away from the spill site in tanks or drums.
Dispersants are another option that uses chemicals to break down the oil. The released chemicals help break an oil slick apart into smaller droplets, which then mix more easily into the water column. Although, this method is far from ideal because even small oil particles are harmful to marine life and the environment.
Another technique is in-situ burning, which involves using fire to burn off the oil. However, this method is dangerous because it releases toxic fumes into the air. Consequently, nearby communities can suffer. In addition, in-situ burning has been proven to not be overly effective, especially in particularly cold waters.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Do Oil Spills Happen?
Oil spills are a common occurrence around the globe. Their causes are varied but often happen due to human error or natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is one of the most infamous. It was caused by a natural gas explosion and resulted in a massive crude oil leakage into the Gulf of Mexico.
Spills can also occur in factories and industrial workplaces where crude oil is transported or stored. For example, when something goes wrong with an oil well. There are many reasons why oil wells go bad. Such as faulty machinery or improper maintenance. If this happens, oil begins to leak into the surrounding soil and water.
The impacts of these accidents can range from minor inconveniences to major environmental damage. Regardless of what caused the problem, all oil spills are dangerous.
Why Is Oil So Bad For The Environment?
When even a small amount of oil gets into the ocean, it causes problems for both human beings and marine life. It can harm plants, animals, and even humans who eat seafood. It can also destroy habitats where marine life lives.
Oil and water do not mix; sea life will be suffocated, ingest, or otherwise contaminated by the oil, causing death.
This is why it is essential to contain the spillage as much as possible, thus preventing it from spreading any further.
What Are The Different Types Of Oil Booms?
There are different shapes, sizes and types of booms available for dealing with an oil spill. However, all designs include common features like an above-water freeboard, below-water skirt, flotation devices, and support chain connectors.
Among the various options available are:
- Inflatable: Inflatable booms are made of durable materials like PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or polyurethane-coated fabric. They are designed to be inflated quickly and easily. Once inflated, they expand outward, creating a barrier between the oil and the sea.
- Solid flotation: These booms are often made with a solid polyethylene foam core for good buoyancy. They are designed to stay afloat for long periods. They do this by using air pockets inside their structure.
- Self-inflating: Self-inflating booms are similar to inflatable ones. However, they will inflate themselves (as you may have guessed from the name).
- Absorbent: oil absorbent booms do as the name suggest and soak up hydrocarbons but not water itself. They are mainly suitable for smaller oil slick spill cleanup, like from a boat leakage in a marina. You can also use conventional and sorbent booms together.
Knowing how to choose the right boom that best suits your needs depends on water conditions. For, example if the spill is in calm waters like an estuary versus open waters that are subject to rough wave action.
What Are The Advantages Of Booms?
Even though oil containment booms have a few disadvantages outlined above, they are generally quite successful.
In fact, they are so widely used because of these numerous advantages. Among the benefits of these products are:
- They reduce the risk of further pollution: since booms help keep oil in one place, you don’t have to worry about spreading the contamination. This allows other devices like vacuums, skimmers, and absorbents to be used to recover the oil.
- They protect wildlife: booms help prevent animals from being harmed by an oil spill. This means that they are useful for protecting marine life. In addition, they allow fish and other aquatic creatures to be saved from oil that might have spread.
- They provide protection for humans: they help prevent people from getting hurt by the oil. They also make sure that the oil doesn’t damage any property.
- They are easy to transport: since they are lightweight, they are easier to move around than other types of equipment.
- They are buoyant: when deployed correctly, they float on the surface of the water. This makes them very easy to handle. Plus, it means that they are ideal for use when the water has been spilled in a body of water.
After weighing up the various pros and cons, the advantages of using booms show they are still the best way to deal with oil spills.
Though there are some disadvantages that you should be aware of, booming remains one of the most effective techniques for oil spill response on water.