A pilot project within a Freshwater Oil Spill Remediation Study is underway at the International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area, southeast of Kenora, Ontario, where scientists are attempting to move freshwater spill research, which is typically relegated to the lab, out into the field.
As part of a three-stage study, scientists are deliberately spilling oil to determine the impacts of diluted bitumen on freshwater systems. They will attempt to fill in knowledge gaps that exist about these types of spills as well as the most effective cleanup methods.
According to Experimental Lakes officials, the first stage of the study, which has already occurred, involved using three very small land-based “microcosm” tanks to examine the chemical and physical behaviour of diluted bitumen in freshwater. Bitumen is too thick to be transported in pipelines, so it is diluted with other, lighter oils to allow it to flow with ease.
“Oil is a complex mixture of chemicals whose nature changes with time in the environment,” project leaders stated on their website. “These changes can affect how easily it can be cleaned up (For example, does the oil remain floating or sink?) and its potential toxicity to freshwater wildlife.”
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Researchers also have the potential to discover if oil-eating microbes exist in their freshwater environment.
Next, researchers will cordon off small sections of a research lake to study the oil spill’s effect on organisms such as bugs, fish and amphibians.
The final portion of the study involves examining the most effective methods of cleaning spilled oil from shorelines by using small, contained model spills in a research lake.
“This [final stage of the] study will focus on the shoreline, which is most sensitive to oil and presents the biggest difficulty in terms of cleanup efforts,” stated researchers.
Experimental Lakes officials also went into detail about safety precautions being taken over the course of the study. The spills can be as small as 1.25 litres each and would be left for just three days before being cleaned up by professional oil-spill responders.
“All of the proposed model oil spills will be limited in volume and will be added into contained areas that are isolated from the rest of the lake,” researchers stated. “We will also install a series of absorbent booms around the isolated areas and at the lake outflow, to double and triple protect against any leakages from the isolated areas.”
The lead scientist on the study is Dr. Vince Palace, an aquatic toxicologist with over 25 years’ experience working on chemical and non-chemical stressors on freshwater.