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Disaster Averted in Virginia Oil Spill, But Oil Spills Remain a Serious Problem

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The world watched in horror and frustration as 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, after an explosion occurred on a drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon. The rig was licensed to BP. Eleven workers were killed in the explosion and the spill had devastating effects on marine life and the fishing industry in the Gulf. But the long-term prognosis for the Gulf could be even more devastating. While the oil has stopped leaking and the well has effectively been plugged, the cleanup efforts are far from finished and the full impact of the spill on marine life and the fishing industry in the Gulf are still unknown. But what is clear is that the damage in the Gulf has made the public acutely aware of the dangers associated with oil spills. That is why news of a recent oil spill in Virginia, although not nearly of the same magnitude as the Gulf spill, should not be overlooked.

On October 5, 2010, S.E.A. Solutions, a ship-dismantling facility, was cutting up a container ship for the steel and pumping oil toward the stern when oil leaked from the remaining piece of the ship into the cove at the facility. The Coast Guard later located the spill on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River and removed 1,000 gallons from the water and the vessel. However, an undetermined amount of oily waste and debris remained aboard the vessel. A cleanup process is underway using vacuum trucks to recover the oil. It was also revealed that S.E.A. had previously been fined for dismantling ships without a state permit and was the site of two barge fires this past summer.

While the Virginia oil spill was contained quickly, the cleanup process for the Gulf spill was much more time-consuming. The first attempt to contain the oil spill did not occur until almost three weeks after the explosion. That attempt, which involved a “containment dome,” was unsuccessful. Another attempt three weeks later, a “top kill” maneuver, was also unsuccessful. In fact, it was not until the “static kill” procedure, on August 4, that BP was successfully able to pump mud into the capped well and push the oil back further below the ocean floor.

After the oil spill in the Gulf, authorities cannot afford to take any oil spill lightly. The long-lasting effects of the Gulf oil spill remain to be seen, but it is clear that implementing more extensive precautions is pivotal to preventing future devastation. The response to the Elizabeth River oil spill was quick and appears to have been effective in containing potential damage. Yet, while containing oil spills is crucial, implementing procedures to avoid spills altogether should be a nationwide priority.