Oil Spills: Minimizing the Damage

An Interview with Canada-based Merv Fingas, Ph.D., Oil Spill Consultant.

Q. How did you get involved with research and work related to oil spill response? Why is this work important to you?

A. I began working on oil spills in 1974, and through the years I’ve worked on various aspects of them, including the science, chemistry, and countermeasures. I’ve been involved in more than 100 oil spills. 

I joined ASTM in the late 1980s and have been active ever since in developing standards. This is also important to me because the work aligns with my professional interests, and I can see how it has aided the progress of work in the field. 

This has been my life’s work. I’ve seen the benefits to the environment in the work I’ve carried out. For example, skimmers are now rated in standard ways, and approaches to spill cleanup and related information are  much more standardized.

What originally attracted me to my work was a large oil spill off the east coast of Canada in 1970 called the “Arrow Spill.” A tanker ran aground in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia, and I followed the news about the spill. It took two to three years to clean it up, and that piqued my interest in the topic. I was already in the field of science — chemistry and petroleum chemistry — when the spill happened, and I moved into this specific field.

MORE FOR YOU: New Guide for Oil Spill Prediction and Cleanup

Q. What are the initial considerations in deciding how to address oil spills?

A. The initial consideration is deciding how to minimize environmental damage from the spill.

There is a “pre-step” to this, and that’s how to assess the potential effect that oils of different types will have on a specific location. This should be part of a contingency plan from work that goes on beforehand. These plans are similar across North America and Europe. They are hundreds of pages in length and cover every aspect of spills from organization to final cleanup and demobilization. Many of the plans now cite ASTM International F20 standards [the committee on hazardous substances and oil spill response].

I’ve always been on the scientific end of it, in chemistry and physics. There’s a lot of science that goes on in the field of oil spills, a field that’s most active between spills. We’re assessing the fate and effect of past spills, we’re developing models, we’re creating potential scenarios for the future.

Let’s say that a spill occurs in a harbor near you, and the contingency plan accounts for the fate and effect of various oils in that harbor. When a spill occurs, the plan is activated and the resources named in it are brought out. People start determining the extent of the spill to start cleaning it up. They start protecting shorelines and start booming off areas that might be sensitive. 

For me, when a spill occurred and a contingency plan was activated, I typically would be involved in the remote sensing of that spill. For several years, we [Environment Canada] had our own aircraft so we’d mobilize and head out there with specialized sensors to detect and map out the oil, where it is and how much of it, and describe its characteristics, such as relative thickness and emulsification.

Q. How are standards important to oil spill response? 

A. Standards are important for measuring approaches as well as responses to oil spills. Looking back before ASTM International started working in this area, there was an amount of randomness in certain measurements. 

The name plate or maximum capacity of a skimmer, for example, is the maximum amount a skimmer or an oil spill recovery unit can pick up. It was measured in every sort of way so you couldn’t use this as a value to purchase skimmers. One small skimmer could be said to have a 10,000-ton capacity and another could have a 5,000-ton capacity, and that’s because there was no standard. 

When the ASTM work first started, the main plate capacity of a skimmer was a first priority. The capacity is important because it identifies which skimmers have the capacity for a particular spill.

There has now been a standard for this for a number of years, and it has resulted in comparability between manufacturers. Standardization has meant a great deal for 
the consumers of these products. 

On the other side, having standard measurements and processes has improved spill response by improving equipment and procedures. We have, for example, set procedures for how you go about approaching certain types of spills. For shoreline cleanup, standards address which cleanup method(s) should be used on what types of shorelines and  of oil. We also have several dispersant standards for freshwater such as lakes that specify the best use of dispersants there.

In Canada, there are 12 oil spills of greater than 1,000 gallons a day, according to Environment Canada data. In the U.S., that number would be much greater. Many of these spills occur in harbors and not necessarily in the water. Spills can occur on highways with tanker rollovers, for example. Many occur with loading and unloading barges, along waterways such as the Mississippi, where there’s a lot of activity, and so on. There’s quite a variety of spill locations and causes.  

We’ve continued to plug gaps in the technology with standardization, and now the gaps that are appearing are not as serious or as frequent as 20 years ago. Generally speaking, F20 standards cover a wide variety of oil spill topics: recovery or skimmers, containment or booms, oil spill treating agents, remote sensing and modeling, in-situ-burning, initial response, shoreline cleanup, and others.

Recently, there has been a new standard that looks at the changes in the properties and behavior of an oil as it weathers, largely as it evaporates [F3337]. That information can help for spill contingency planning as well as management.

Q. How has your thinking and approach evolved, if at all, over the years you’ve been part of the profession?

A. My thinking has evolved over the years to be much more systematic. 

When I started, I took a more simplistic approach and have learned since then that one needs to examine the system and the processes much more carefully. Often there are many factors behind a process that are important, and I’ve learned to carry out more extensive research on a topic before proceeding further. 

For example, containment. Years ago, we presumed you could simply contain an oil spill by using a bigger boom. The boom would have to be bigger and bigger as the current got stronger. And then we found out that there is a boom containment limit that happens to be very low. We had to go back to our design of booms and how to deploy them as we found out there is a lot of science behind this seemingly simple thing.

Now that we have a number of standards, we can use one standard to ladder over to another. For example, for the “weathering” process [the changes that occur to oil as it spends time in the environment], we now have a standard that covers what you measure after you weather the oil. Some future standards could be about how best to do the weathering. We have some suggestions specifically on how to do that kind of weathering. That could turn into a much more systematic process. 

As we develop one standard, we see what other gaps might be and look to developing new ones in the future. Also, the technology changes somewhat so sometimes new standards are needed.

In the remote sensing field, for instance, we were asked to develop a standard on vessel-mounted cameras for monitoring oil spills from small recovery vessels. We did that and came up with all the calculations and data to do that. But with drones, that standard is becoming somewhat obsolete, and we’ll have to move on to a drone standard. This work is likely to start in a year or two.

Thinking of gaps and what has changed, it’s really important to share information that has been developed and to read that information. There’s a tendency for people in this field not to read papers and there’s a lot of minor research being repeated because of that. On the other hand, it is a bit difficult because the oil-spill fieldwork doesn’t appear in just one journal. It appears in about a hundred journals, many of which most people don’t have access to without a lot of cost. Information sharing in this field is a big barrier, a large obstacle to progress.


Merv Fingas, Ph.D., is an independent consultant based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is retired from his career at Environment Canada. An ASTM International member since 1986, Fingas is active on the committee on hazardous substances and oil spill response (F20), which honored his contributions with the Award of Merit in 2005, and where he leads subcommittees on treatment, in-situ burning, and surveillance and tracking. He has served on the Committee on Technical Committee Operations, and he is also a member of the committees on water (D19), homeland security operations (E54), and personal protective clothing and equipment (F23).

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