How Are Oil Spills Cleaned?

On Monday, workers in Australia rushed to contain an oil spill from a grounded ship in the Great Barrier Reef. The Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 ship was carrying 72,000 tons (65,000 metric tons) of coal, and was loaded with 1,000 tons (950 metric tons) of fuel when it collided into the Douglas Shoals region of the coral reef late Saturday.

Immediate efforts are being made to stabilize the damaged vessel, isolate the oil, and prevent further damage to the fragile coral. A boom will be placed around the ship to contain the oil leaking from its hull.

According to Marine Safety Queensland, about two tons of oil has already spilled into the water. The oil slick is approximately 300 feet (91 meters) wide and stretches close to two miles (3.2 km), according to news reports.

Oil spills occur when crude oil is accidentally released into a body of water by an oil tanker, refinery, storage facility, underwater pipeline or offshore oil-drilling rig.

Oil spills can be extremely hazardous and environmentally threatening, and need to be contained and cleaned as soon as possible. In the United States, the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are two agencies that are responsible for cleaning up oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs, the oil floats and forms a millimeter-thick layer on the surface of the water. Timing is crucial to prevent the slick's spread.

There are four basic ways to clean or contain an oil spill, and workers determine the most appropriate method depending on the location of the spill, potential hazards, weather conditions, waves and currents.

The most notorious oil spill in history was the Exxon Valdez catastrophe in 1989. This disastrous oil spill released 11 million gallons (more than 41 millio liters) of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska, and largely served as a wake-up call to the detrimental effects of oil spills on the ecosystem.

Denise Chow
Live Science Contributor

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.