Let’s face it, we all love our oil. In fact, “addicted” may be a more appropriate word than “love.” The stuff practically runs through our veins alongside the caffeine and nicotine. We use oil, directly or indirectly, every single day. It heats our homes. It fuels our cars. It is our consumer lifeblood.
To the point, many of us were deeply alarmed last month when we heard that there may be a fuel shortage as a result of the Colonial Pipeline leak in Alabama. Yes, Georgia and Alabama did declare a state of emergency after the unintentional dumping of over 250,000 gallons of precious gasoline. But elevated gas prices aren’t the only consequence of pipeline leaks — more importantly, what happens when our oil addiction spills over into the environment?
The term “oil spill” includes any introduction of liquid petroleum into the environment, from extensive spills via vessels like leaky pipelines or oil rigs, to smaller leaks from household storage tanks. Oil spills introduce a foreign substance into the habitats they invade, which can damage plants and animals.
The Colonial Pipeline leak developed in the Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area, which has been temporarily closed due to the required cleanup. Although the leak sits miles from residential homes, it is dangerously close to the river’s wildlife refuge. Fortunately, this leak was confined to some nearby retention ponds and at low risk for oily runoff into the nearby Cahaba. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all pipeline leaks.
There are many types of oil that can cause harm to wildlife if spilled in any amount. But let’s focus on the variety that we consumers are most familiar with – fuel oils, which are considered “light oils”. These oils, including gasoline and diesel, spread out over the surface of bodies of water, unlike heavier oils that can sink in some conditions.
Just like fuel oils, there are also animals that like to float on water – ducks, birds, otters, the like. Such animals are the most affected by fuel oil spills since they are more likely to come in direct physical contact with the oil than say, fish below the water’s surface. Of course, gasoline is toxic when ingested, but even external exposure can be damaging to wildlife.
We have all seen those pictures of seagulls covered in syrupy black goo, which are almost as upsetting as Sarah McLachlan’s commercials combating animal cruelty (cue the song “In the Arms of an Angel”). Being covered in these thick oils is particularly threatening for birds, as the oil prevents them from maintaining their body temperature. Intricate outer feathers provide a waterproof barrier between the bird and its habitat. This barrier protects a layer of down feathers that lie right next to the skin, trapping dry air and keeping the animal warm. Oil compromises the structure of the outer feathers, allowing cool water to seep through the down coating and come in contact with the birds’ sensitive skin. As the bird’s body heat drains away, it dies of hypothermia. Aquatic animals like otters rely on clean fur (rather than feathers) to trap dry air for insulation, which makes being externally oiled equally as fatal.
Although most of the infamous photos taken of intensely oiled animals are products of heavy oil spills, fuel oil still poses the same threat. In addition, fuel oils are very volatile, meaning they evaporate more quickly than other oils and leave behind high concentrations of fumes that are toxic if inhaled. The noxious gas is also harmful to humans and can prevent workers from tending to a spill, not unlike the situation in Alabama, where the fumes halted cleanup for several days.
Plants, and even soil they occupy, are also afflicted in oil-related crises. If oil comes into direct contact with a plant’s leaves, it can disrupt the process of photosynthesis by preventing sunlight and CO2 from reaching the plant. Even plants that don’t come in immediate contact with a leak may suffer due to its effects on the soil. Oil can prevent soil from absorbing water, leaving plant life to dry out.
If this Alabama leak had been much closer to the drinking water intake that lies a few miles north, unsafe drinking water could have been a serious problem.
If fuel oil in the soil seeps deeper into the Earth, it may contaminate the groundwater with benzene, a carcinogenic chemical naturally found in oil. As groundwater supplies over 50% of the drinking water for US residents, this level of pollution is particularly hazardous. Luckily, compromised groundwater is not usually a concern for spills above ground, as the oil is typically halted by layers of clay and sediment. The risk of groundwater contamination is more prevalent for underground leaks, such as those from pipelines like the Colonial pipeline. If this Alabama leak had been much closer to the drinking water intake that lies a few miles north, unsafe drinking water could have been a serious problem.
So What About Us?
As long as our oil is contained in those nice pipelines and in our car engines, why is this a big deal? Well, oil spills and pipeline leaks happen more often than you might think.
A “significant pipeline incident,” as defined by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (the federal agency that regulates these pipelines), is an incident in which one or more of the following criteria occur: (1) there is an explosion; (2) someone is hospitalized (or dead); (3) 50 barrels of liquid are spilled; or (4) over $115,000 worth of damage is incurred. Since the beginning of this year, 226 such incidents have been reported nationwide.
This trend of perilous pipeline leaks isn’t a new phenomenon either. In the last 20 years, there have been 5,674 significant events, totaling over $7.5 billion in damages. Of these accidents, 858 involved a serious injury or death, amounting to 347 pipeline-related fatalities since 1996. Most of the incidents (about 80%) that resulted in an hospitalization were caused by pipelines involved in the distribution of gasoline.
So what do we average joes have to do with any of this?
We can help prevent these environmental setbacks by being cautious and informed!
The leading cause of pipeline accidents today is human error (surprise!) when using excavating equipment, incidentally striking a line. This is exactly what happened during recent upkeep of another section of the same Colonial pipeline that leaked, igniting an explosion and kindling wildfires. So if you ever go hunting for digletts, make sure you are aware of any pipelines in your habitat. You can do this by calling “811” before you dig, a federally mandated number that will tell you what’s below your feet. Even if you aren’t going underground, you can still make sure you are disposing of used oils properly. By following these safety measures, each one of us can help to lessen humanity’s oily footprint upon the Earth.
Lauren Sgro is a PhD student in the Physics department at the University of Georgia. Her research focus is in astronomy, specifically debris disks around young stars that may tell us more about planetary formation. Despite the all-consuming nature of graduate school, she enjoys doing yoga and occasionally hiking up a mountain. You can’t reach her on Twitter, but you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. More from Lauren Sgro.