The recent outcry in the national media over the spilling of around 200 tonnes of oil by a ship off the Queensland coast obscures another, far larger oil spill - and one more risky to the public health and Australian environment.
This is the oil spill that has been occurring in Australian towns and cities, round mines and industrial sites for over a century. Whereas there have been 24 recorded major spills at sea in the past 105 years, there have been tens of thousands of leaks and spills on land. While maritime spills total about 40,000 tonnes of oil, the amount lost on land is unknown - but almost certainly greater.
Hydrocarbons contain substances potentially toxic to humans and other life. In the oceans these are usually dispersed and broken down by the natural action of wind, wave and microbes. On land they can seep into our soils and groundwater and provide a source of toxicity to plants, animals and people for many years. Some of these substances, like benzene, are known to cause cancer.
Every town, city, powerhouse, gasometer, refinery, railway yard and heavy industrial plant in the country has a legacy of these leaks and spills reaching back for decades - although today’s oil industry is assiduous in preventing them and in seeking ways to clean them up.
Nevertheless there are far too many old leaks and spills and the cost is too high for clean-up to be carried out at the national level using traditional approaches. Every former service station site and old machinery workshop, potentially, has a plume of leaked or improperly disposed-of hydrocarbons beneath it. Every time it rains, a film of oil and other hydrocarbons is washed off our roads and into creeks and groundwater sumps. Old garbage tips leach the hydrocarbons that have been thrown into them over generations.
The main difference between the Queensland oil spill and this “mother of all spills” is that the first provides a television opportunity - oil-soaked birds and beaches, hard-working clean-up crews and so on - whereas the big spill is out of sight, out of mind and the media, on the whole, isn’t interested. However, that does not mean this isn’t a national problem - and one that needs to be addressed by government, industry and science with a similar or even greater sense of urgency, because many people are being directly exposed.
In the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) we are working with the oil industry and six research organisations to develop solutions to this long-running leakage of hydrocarbons into our environment and, often, into drinking water sources. We are testing a suite of new technologies for assessing and cleaning up this problem at a far lower cost than the methods currently prescribed. We have established a national demonstration site in the grounds of a former oil refinery in South Australia to show that these new methods work.
They include the use of special native microbes which we have discovered to be particularly good at breaking down hydrocarbons into harmless water and gas. They include “monitored natural attenuation” - a low-cost method that ensures nature does all the hard work of cleaning up oil spills efficiently in Australian environments, on which we are currently writing the rule-book. And they include working with the Australian Institute of Petroleum to develop best-practice guidelines for preventing and cleaning up spills, which will put Australia at the cutting edge internationally. The AIP provides major support to CRC CARE researchers to develop policies and innovative solutions for oil-contaminated sites. At the same time we are working on a range of sensors which can be used to detect and monitor hydrocarbon pollution wherever it occurs.
Together this suite of technologies can potentially save Australian tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary clean-up costs, reduce the risk to the public from contaminated soil and water and gradually eliminate a decades-old problem. They can also put us at the forefront in the export of technologies and advice on how to clean up a problem affecting every industrialised society on Earth.
For this to happen, however, there needs to be the same sense of urgency, priority and concerted action that we have seen over the Queensland marine oil spill. To ignore or downplay the far larger problem of terrestrial oils spills simply because they are not on TV every night isn’t good enough. To begin with we need a national accounting system to identify how many significant such spills may exist, and whether or not they present a risk to the public who live above and around them and to the natural systems they contaminate. Then we need an accelerated effort to develop, prove-up and adopt the methods used to clean them up in the real world.
The benefits are plain: a safer, cleaner environment, a healthier community and a new export industry generating major income from helping other nations to overcome their own legacy of industrial development - particularly in Asia, where these issues are only just starting to surface.
So next time you see a big marine oil spill on TV, spare a thought for the larger oil spill in the soil and water beneath your feet - and the importance of doing something effective to clean it up.
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