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Addressing oil spills when they happen

When it comes to the oil industry, it's not hard to find conflicting opinions. But there's one thing everyone can agree on: Oil spills are costly, dangerous and should always be avoided.

Despite the resounding agreement on the harm environmental spills cause, these unfortunate events continue to occur on a regular basis. At least four have occurred in just the first quarter of 2017 alone.

Damaging leaks occur in early 2017

One pipeline traveling underground through the Midwest sprung a leak in Iowa in late January, according to NPR. Nearly 140,000 gallons of oil leaked into the ground.

"The product is under pressure, so as soon as a leak develops, it starts coming out pretty fast," said Jeff Vansteenburg, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, according to NPR. "Vacuum trucks are sucking up as much liquid as they can and taking that down to Magellan's terminal. …Once they've recovered all the free product that they can then they will go in and remove contaminated soil."

In another incident, a Colorado stream and surrounding land were contaminated after 4,800 gallons of oil were leaked from a broken pipeline in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, according to The Coloradoan.

In both instances, cleanup crews were alerted promptly after the leaks were discovered. Luckily, the Iowa spill, despite its size, never reached nearby streams or wildlife. The spill in Colorado, though smaller, was more harmful. In addition to reaching up to two miles into Stinking Water Creek's unnamed tributaries, it also killed several birds and small mammals.

Oil spill containment systems and plans

Companies are expected to do their best to prevent environmental contaminations, but the risk of a spill is always present. As such, every company needs to have a plan in place in case one does occur.

There are several components to a spill reaction plan – one being structures that act as barriers. For example, the spill in Colorado was contained within the small tributary because a dam had been installed previously as a preventative measure.

Other components consist of knowing what equipment and personnel are needed to respond quickly and correctly. Cleaning up an oil spill usually involves vacuums, steel tanks and berms. The vacuum relocates the oil and contaminated resources, like soil and water, to the tank. Spill containment berms block oil from spreading farther from the spill site, explained Oil Spill Prevention & Response.

A common tool used when addressing a severe spill is a large 21,000 gallon steel tank. This is big enough to hold much of the oil and contaminated materials from an environmental spill. Plus, many are built with a V-shaped bottom, which makes emptying and cleaning the tank easy.

A non-damaging oil spill is impossible. Any time a company's pipelines fail or leak, there will be some sort of harm. Aside from the contamination of the surrounding environment, the event will also hurt the company's reputation, lose productivity and, in some cases, result in a cease of operations for several days.

However, the damage of an oil spill can be minimized if your company and employees know what to do when one occurs. By addressing the issue promptly, being prepared with containment systems and fixing the issue that caused the leak in the first place, a company can curtail environmental harm and demonstrate to consumers their efforts to mitigate future problems.

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