COASTAL OIL SPILLS REMAIN A WORLDWIDE MENACE
By ZOLTAN ISTVAN
National Geographic Channel
c.2003 National Geographic Channel
(Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

In 1978, off the coast of Brittany, the Amoco Cadiz tanker ran
aground,
dumping 220,000 tons of crude oil -- one of the world's worst oil-spill
disasters.

International volunteers, emergency personnel and citizens of
Brittany
raced to the white sand beaches to help save the area. Most volunteers
brought only shovels from home and buckets to collect the oil.

"Since that time, not much has changed in the technology of coastal
oil
cleanup," says Edward Owens, a geologist, principal of Polaris Applied
Sciences in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and a specialist with more than
three
decades' experience in oil-spill cleanups, including the Exxon Valdez
in
Alaska in 1989. "Ninety percent of coastal oil cleanup is often still
manual, just as it was with the Amoco."

A report from the World Wildlife Fund-Spain dramatically underscores
the
threat of oil spills: "The Prestige: One Year On, a Continuing
Disaster."

This month last year, the Prestige -- 26 years old, single-hulled
(today
stronger boats are double-hulled) and laden with 77,000 tons of oil --
snapped in half off the northwest coast of Spain.

"Since the start of the Prestige disaster, around 25,000 sea birds
have
been found dead or injured as the result of exposure to the pollution,"
writes author Raul Garcia, marine officer of WWF-Spain.

Not only seabirds suffered.

In January, as a result of the Prestige, the French government
banned
the harvesting of some oysters and other shellfish near Bordeaux.
Scores of
fisherman who bring in an annual haul of 12,000 tons of oysters from
the
area could no longer earn their living. Tourism also suffered.

Once a spill happens, several forces come into play, the report
points
out. Nature itself can help restore a shoreline. The heavy wave action
along the Brittany shore has sped recovery.

Where man rushes to help nature, results are mixed. Cleanup methods
depend on the toxin and shoreline at hand.

After a spill, scientists frame what is called a net environmental
benefit analysis, weighing factors like animal and plant populations,
budgets and socioeconomic concerns.

"Generally, whatever toxic element you have, you want to wash it up,
pick it up, or suck it up as quickly as possible with as little damage
to
the environment as possible," Owens says. "And this is usually best
done
manually since only the human eye and hand is sensitive enough to
protect
living creatures and the ecosystem."

An example is the spill from the tanker Erika off Brittany on
Christmas
Day in 1999 -- 13,000 tons of diesel fuel oil.

More than 1,000 people, including many volunteers, rallied to help
clean
up the spill.

Crew members and volunteers wore chemical-resistant apparel,
including
goggles and gas masks, and carried shovels and buckets. Professionals
brought in liquid-sucking vacuums, biodegradable oil dispersants and
high-pressured hoses that shoot heated seawater.

A cleanup itself can threaten an area, too. In five of every 100
instance, heavy machinery comes in -- many with sift/belt moving
devices to
pick up oil. But the 10-ton tractors can wreak havoc on already fragile
environments.

In the technology of cleanups, a promising innovation is a version
of
so-called bioremediation: pushing oil-tainted sand into breakers and
letting nature cleanse it there.

"This technique helps oil in water get metabolized by naturally
occurring bacteria and microbes -- which then chemically change into
carbon
dioxide, a naturally occurring element," Owens says.

Prevention, of course, is the best strategy. In the aftermath of
catastrophes like the Prestige and the Erika, organizations like WWF
and
Greenpeace have launched international campaigns that have made an
impact
on the European Commission, the institutional arm of the European
Union.

"I absolutely agree on the need for strong action now," Loyola de
Palacio, EC vice president, wrote to Greenpeace. "We are accelerating a
number of measures, including the publication of an indicative black
list
of substandard ships that would have been denied access to European
ports
(under a new directive)."

Reform is on government minds for another reason. The bill for the
Prestige cleanup, according to the WWF-Spain report, may total nearly 6
billion dollars.