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Oil Cleanup--Pro or Con?

Does cleaning oil spills from coastal areas slow recovery?

Cleaning up oil spills in coastal areas is a complex and massive undertaking. The emotions of local people can run high and political pressure can be intense. In this environment, there seems to be little doubt that some cleanup efforts have been less than optimal. In some cases, particularly for "light" oils, doing nothing and letting nature break down the oil is the best approach, though the political pressure to be doing something may get in the way. "Heavy" oils don't break down so readily though. They can seep down between rocks and into sand where they release toxic chemicals for years. In these cases, it may be a choice between letting the oil continue to poison local plants and animals over time or wrecking everything all at once with a bulldozer.

So far there is little or no evidence that oil spill cleanup in general is worse in the long term than doing nothing. It seems likely that individual cases exist and may even be common. Whether these result from short comings in the technology or are the result of too few experts and inexperienced work crews is unclear. Deciding what's better is tricky as well. In areas where cleanup has been incomplete or absent, life recovers, but biodiversity is low--only organisms that can tolerate the toxins recover. Is this better than lower populations, but more diversity?

Obviously, this is an important question that can only be answered by follow up studies. At the moment, follow ups are focused on the health effects of oil dispersants used at sea in the Deepwater Horizon spill, particularly on workers. Hopefully, other studies on a range of different types of spills and cleanup methods will clarify the situation. However, doing any sort of controlled experiment would require not cleaning up some areas--an idea bound to be unpopular with the neighbors.