Excerpt from the 1991 book "The New York Times Book of Science Literacy" - What Everyone Needs to Know from Newton to the Knuckleball; by the editors and reporters of Science Times, Richard Flaste, editor; HarperCollins, 1991
Until now, chance and the irresistible forces of nature have overwhelmed the comparatively puny efforts of humans in determining whether a major oil spill becomes an ecological disaster or spares the environment. Even when attempts to contain the spillage are undertaken promptly and well, experts say, factors beyond human control usually decide a locality's ecological fate.
Will the technology for cleaning up spills ever be good enough to do the job on its own? The question gained new urgency in the wake of the Exxon Valdez tanker accident, which brought ecological ruin to Prince William Sound in Alaska, and other major spills. Researchers are working to develop a variety of techniques for dealing with oil spills, ranging from relatively mundane methods of burning the oil or simply sopping it up with absorbent material to sophisticated ways of tracking the myriad threads and tendrils of spilled oil. But in practical application, many experts say, the technology has not fundamentally advanced in two decades, although there have been refinements and improvements. It can deal with some kinds of spills, but experts say that under the worst of conditions, with the biggest spills, the best of it is all but useless.
"There may be no technological fix for big spills in adverse conditions," says Richard S. Golob, the director of the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The center keeps track of oil spills, and Mr. Golob is a recognized independent expert on the subject who has studied it for the last fifteen years. "The public has always believed that in an oil spill, we should be able to contain and recover a vast majority of the oil spilled. Historically, that is just not the case. It's not just a problem of organization and available resources. It's a problem of technology and our ability to deal with winds and waves. We are dealing with some of the largest forces of nature. In major spills, when there hasn't been serious damage, the reason is that Mother Nature has been kind to us."
In 1976, the New England coast was spared a major ecological catastrophe from an oil spill, not because of anything humans did, but because of what nature did. The tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals off Massachusetts. It spilled nearly 8 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil, which is heavy, viscous, and long-lived. If the wind had been blowing toward land, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket would have experienced a disaster. Instead, the wind blew the oil out to sea. By contrast, onshore winds blew oil onto the beaches of Brittany after the grounded tanker Amoco Cadiz spilled 68 million gallons into the English Channel in 1978. the result was widespread damage to whole species and communities of wildlife.
Existing techniques are usually effective in containing spills of about a hundred thousand gallons or less, Mr. Golob say, and they can be successfully used to prevent spilled oil from reaching marshes or sheltered coves. But "there are limits to what the equipment and technology can do." Under adverse conditions in the open sea, when waves and winds are high, containment and clean-up attempts can be futile, Mr. Golob says. "Most experts will say that if you can recover 10 to 20 percent of the oil, you're doing well. Many spill experts will say privately that sometimes it is totally ineffective to try to respond to a spill out at sea, and yet that's a very impolitic attitude, because it's giving in. Inaction is perceived as bad." So they proceed to try anyway, he says, while the public meanwhile has "a misperception of what is possible."