What are the impacts of oil spills?

The seriousness of an oil spill will depend on where it occurs. Some of the largest spills have gone virtually unnoticed because they happened out at sea with limited impacts on human activity; that’s not to say that the environment was not harmed.

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The 1989 Exxon Valdez supertanker disaster in Alaska attracted headlines because it spilt approximately 11 million barrels of oil into pristine inshore waters. The USA’s largest accidental oil spill, caused by an explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killed eleven people and discharged an estimated 206 million gallons of oil with huge impacts on coastal communities and wildlife.

The immediate impacts and longer-term effects of oil spills include:

  • Human health:
    Effects on physical and mental health can be significant although there are few studies on this. The people involved in incidents and clean up operations can suffer the most sever impacts including breathing difficulties, skin reactions and longer term diseases including cancer. More information.
  • Environment:
    Marine and coastal ecosystems can be impacted significantly through direct contact e.g. smothering and the release of toxic compounds into the food chain.  The type and extent of damage depends on factors such as: oil type; oil’s behavior once discharged; physical and biological characteristics of the area; tidal movements; weather conditions; effectiveness of clean up operations.  More information.
  • Livelihoods/the economy:
    Oil spills impact on fishing (commercial, recreational and mariculture) and associated industries (e.g. boat-building); agriculture; tourism; industries dependent upon industrial water intakes (e.g. electricity powerplants). More information.
  • Financial and political implications of clean up operations:
    Indirect expenses such as compensation payments can be far higher than the direct costs of the clean up operation. Financial issues are inextricably linked to the political context as different levels of government may be involved in defining compensation levels and pursuing those responsible for such payments. A discussion on the challenges caused by ‘third party interference’ and compensation policies in the Niger Delta can be found here.

Important aspects to consider when exploring this issue include:

  • The complex inter-relationships between human health, environmental, economic and political impacts.
  • The cost and nature of recovery including budget allocations, timeframes and feasibility of what can be achieved realistically
  • Verification of any third-party interference, i.e. beyond the oil company. How might this affect compensation payments to communities and businesses?
  • Ensuing that lessons learned can be captured and integrated into industry and government prevention and response mechanisms in the future.
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