How the Oil Spill Clean-up Works

While engineers try to come up with ways to cap the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico — thousands of people are working on cleaning up the giant oil slick. Laurie Johnson explains the different attack methods used against the thick globs of crude oil.

The vast oil spill is spreading like a giant cancer in the Gulf of Mexico, stretching its diseased tendrils closer and closer to shore.

No one knows how much crude has gurgled out into the muddy waters of the gulf. But no matter how large the spill, the clean-up effort will continue longer than you might think.

"That is a process that may take anywhere between five to ten years to clean up."

Rice University Professor Pedro Alvarez is an expert on environmental engineering. He says that process can be accelerated by using chemical dispersants which break up the oil into small particles.

"And the idea here is to exploit the capability of numerous microorganisms and bacteria that can feed on the oil. They actually eat it. And that can reduce the clean-up time from five to ten years to maybe two to four years. So maybe cut it in half, the clean-up time."

We've heard a lot about BP using those detergents and chemicals, along with boom to contain the spread of the slick and skimmers to scoop up oil from the surface.

BP Spokesman Mark Proegler says skimmers are only able to collect about 10-15 percent of the oil.

"They essentially scoop up the oil and water mix in the water for later separation. And that mix is about 10 percent oil and 90 percent water."

The skimmers have slurped up more than six million gallons of that oil/water mix, which will be siphoned apart. The cleaned water is hosed right back into the gulf, while the separated oil is barreled and still useful for things like heating or asphalt.

The hardest clean-up work comes when the oil washes ashore, which Alvarez says in a spill of this magnitude it is sure to do.

"Eventually some oil unfortunately makes it to the shore and then in that case you have to actually manually remove it and clean it up, you know dig it out with shovels."

Alvarez says the Deepwater Horizon leak is significant, and may result in a far larger spill than projected. But he points out about 40 million barrels of oil are released into the world's oceans every year and at least half of that comes from natural leaks.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...