A quick Punch guide to the Rena oil spill
The toxic oil spill in the Bay of Plenty will leave tonnes of dirty, sticky fuel on New Zealand beaches.
The clean up will continue today, even as “fist-sized patties about 5mm high” continue to wash up, with the weather hampering efforts to battle the spill from the crashed cargo ship Rena. It’s a looming environmental disaster.
Authorities can’t use booms to stop the spread because of the ocean conditions, and are hoping dispersants will reduce the damage. There is also some speculation marine microbes could help.
Professor Ravi Naidu, Managing director of the Co-operative Research Centre For Contamination Assessment And Remediation Of The Environment, SA, says:
This spill could impact on the sensitive aquatic environment and life cycle of the marine ecosystem. The oil will not disappear quickly… it will be in the aquatic environment for a while. There are volatile hydrocarbons in the oil which will disperse but the oil which is not removed will continue to have an effect.
There will be some natural remediation by microbes in the coastal environment, but it may be found that these are not as active as they are in warmer tropical waters. Oil which is bound to organic matter in the sediments may be the easiest to break down—the wave action will be an advantage.
Marine ecologist Associate Professor Mark Costello, at Auckland University’s Leigh Marine Laboratory, says:
[Effectiveness of the microbes] seems to depend on what type of oil it is, and what type of environment it is, as the physical environment breaks it into smaller pieces. Dispersants, like a lot of detergents, will kill animals and plants as well. Some of the new ones may be safer, but I don’t know how safe they are. You do get natural oil and gas leaks in various parts of the world. The marine microbes which break down oil slicks seem to be pretty cosmopolitan and they break down lumps of oil in other places.
“I know people have sprayed nutrients such as nitrogen on beaches to try and speed up the growth of bacteria that would help degrade the oil—but as far as I know this has been experimental and it’s not yet clear whether it has any effect in degrading the oil faster. The nutrients could have their own knock-on effect.
It’s only early days, but already birds have died, and penguins and possibly seals and a dog have been affected. People have been told to stay away from the beach, and to avoid fish that may have come into contact with the 5km slick. It’s still not clear why the ship, which had had deficiencies noted previously, ran aground. We’ll keep you updated.
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