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Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Massive oil spill … ecological tragedy … media hype?

When there has not been a major oil pollution incident for a while, do the media get hungry for the taste of an oiled seabird? Or do all oil pollution stories get hyped up?

The incident last week in the Puget Sound on the U.S. West Coast illustrates just what can happen when an oil spill hits the news pages.

“A massive oil spill, stretching for miles in a bluish-black sheen, threatening pristine beaches and wildlife … like used motor oil,” says the Seattle Times. The newspaper reported a Department of Ecology spokesman as saying, “We have a massive oil spill on our hands … a very large, very complex spill … industrial oil, a heavy grade that can coat beaches, form tar balls and does not readily evaporate.” It also reported a tugboat master as saying his boat had hit “a big black pool of oil, solid black … really, really heavy oil … I could smell it a mile before we got to it”, and a local resident as saying, “This is an ecological tragedy”.

Two days later, the language in the Seattle Times had moderated somewhat, although it still talks of “barricading vast sheens of oil film behind nearly 19,000 feet of containment booms”. But the oil on the beaches is now “sepia-toned … light brown and translucent” like “motor oil” (rather than the previous “used motor oil”).

What are the facts? Compare the Seattle Times with the press release issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. “Shoreline (as opposed to whole beach) affected with light sheen … with film coating … small, isolated, thin patches  of non-recoverable oil remaining on the water … patches of brownish organic matter throughout area waters that can appear like oil sheen, but are natural ... 9,900 feet of protection booms deployed".”

Perhaps the key fact is that this ‘massive’ oil spill totalled 1,000 gallons of oil - in industry parlance that is roughly 24 barrels or 3 tonnes. No oil spill is acceptable, however small, since any oil in the water puts the environment at risk, in this case eelgrass beds, baitfish spawning areas, salt marsh habitats, wildlife (one grebe and one seal). However this incident shows just how far a small oil spill can physically spread on the surface of the water. It also shows just how far an oil spill can be stretched in the search for sensational news.

But at least the tanker industry was not blamed. How often does one read articles about bulk carriers, container ships or even car carriers that have been involved in a pollution incident and are blithely described as tankers? In this particular case, the word tanker has not appeared once. That’s some progress at least.

Contact: Bill Box