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Ranger Rick on the Big Oil Spill

Ranger Rick answers your questions.

Cleanup crews are working around the clock to contain and clean up a large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill has created an oil slick that is threatening wildlife in the Gulf and surrounding wetlands. Here’s what kids are asking about the spill—and answers from environmental experts at Ranger Rick magazine.

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What happened?

Hundreds of oil wells have been drilled into the ground beneath the Gulf of Mexico. At each deep-water well, a pipe carries the oil from deep in the Gulf floor up to a platform that floats on the water’s surface. Here the oil is collected and shipped to land for us to use. 

On April 20, a new well had just been drilled. Suddenly, some natural gas and oil accidentally escaped from the well and gushed to the surface. Then, right beneath the drilling platform, it exploded in a huge fireball. The damaged platform sank and pulled the pipe leading from the well down with it. The broken pipe leaked oil into the Gulf for more than 80 days. The leaking pipe has finally been capped, but no one is yet sure if it will hold.

Oil Spill Map July 20, 2010

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Why are people so worried about the leak?

The oil that was coming out of the ocean floor is a dark, thick, sticky liquid with a strong odor. Much of the oil is now floating to the surface and spreading, creating an oil "slick" that covers hundreds of square miles. It coats everything it touches in a layer of sticky oil. The oil also pollutes the water, and air above it, with fumes that are dangerous to breathe. Huge clouds of oil are also spreading beneath the surface, and no one is sure what kind of damage they may do to living things.

Millions of gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf so far. As more and more oil leaks from the well, the slick spreads farther and farther. It has now washed up onto the coast, and into wetlands in some areas. This presents a serious threat to plants and animals that live there.

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What happens to the animals that get covered in oil?

Birds get the oil on their feathers when they dive into the water for food or when they land on the surface to rest. When they try to clean their feathers with their beaks, they can accidentally swallow some of the oil. The oil also hurts their eyes and harms their lungs. People are capturing some of these birds and trying to clean them, but many of the oil-soaked birds still die.

Ocean animals, such as sea turtles and dolphins, also get oil on them when they come to the surface to breathe. They can be harmed by chemicals in the oil, especially if they swallow or breathe some. Hundreds of sea turtles have died from the spill. Smaller creatures aren’t safe either. Countless larvae (young) of fish, shrimp, crabs, oysters, and turtle hatchlings, which swim in the open sea, have also been killed by the pollution, scientists believe.

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What happens as the oil reaches the coast?


Hand covered with oil, Gulf of Mexico, May 2010
The Gulf of Mexico Coast is one of the most productive natural areas in the entire world, with millions of acres of marsh, swamp, forests, and islands. Hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife feed and nest there, including some that are rare. The young of many species of fish and other animals grow up in the wetlands. And the wetlands help protect the coastline from hurricanes. 

When oil enters a wetland, it covers almost everything it touches—the plants, the animals that eat the plants, and the animals that eat the animals that eat the plants. When birds come to feed, they can get coated in oil or poisoned by the oil-covered animals they eat. And when the oil-covered plants die, they wash away, and the wetlands can disappear. The oil also soaks into the soil and sand and can suffocate and poison living things.

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Will the disaster also harm people?

Eleven people died from the explosion on the oil platform. At sea and on land, others may become sick from touching the oil and breathing the fumes. And we don’t even know what some of the long-term harm to people might be.

Thousands of people make their living by catching the fish, crabs, and shrimp that depend on wetlands. Many of these people are already unable to work because of the spill. And if the oil kills too many fish and other sea creatures, there may be little for the fishermen to catch in the future.

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How is the leak being cleaned up?
Here are four main ways:
1. Chemical Dispersants. Chemicals are added to the oil to separate (disperse) it into smaller pieces. Natural microbes (small organisms such as bacteria) in the water can then break down the oil more easily. Unfortunately, these chemicals can be harmful to fish and other wildlife, and they can cause tiny drops of oil to spread more widely. Scientists have already discovered large clouds of oil drops beneath the surface of the Gulf. They fear that this oil will kill many of the tiny creatures that animals depend on for their food.
2. Skimming. Boats suck up, or skim, the oil from the water surface and put it into tanks. This works only in calm waters. Plus, using dispersants can make it hard to skim oil.
3. Burning. Oil is sometimes burned right off the water’s surface. The down side of this method? It can add to air pollution.

4. Separating. Not long from now, 32 large machines that can clean oil from seawater will be brought to the Gulf. They will suck in both oil and water, and separate them by spinning the mixture. The oil will be collected and stored on board a ship, and the clean water will be pumped back into the Gulf. The designers say the water that goes back into the sea will be almost completely free of oil.

These 32 machines will be able to clean up to 6 million gallons of water each day. That sounds like a lot, but during those same 24 hours, many more times that much water will have been contaminated by new oil leaking from the well. So, no one really knows how much these machines will be able to help the clean-up.

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Why couldn't the oil leak be stopped quickly?
There's a giant shut-off valve on the oil well, called a “blowout preventer.” It was designed to cut off the flow of oil in case of an accident like this. But for some reason, it didn’t work. (No one is sure exactly why yet.) Workers tried to use robots to repair the valve, but that didn't work either.

Since then, workers have tried other ways of stopping or slowing the leak. Finally, on July 15, they managed to put a huge cap on the pipe sticking up from the well. That has stopped the leak, but no one is sure how long the cap will hold.

Meanwhile, workers are drilling two more oil wells (called relief wells) to try to cut off the oil supply to the capped well. If they succeed, they finally will have "killed" the well and stopped the leak for good. But it will probably take until sometime in August for the first relief well to reach the capped well.

• Cap and Collect. Workers tried to cover the main leak in the pipe a mile deep in the Gulf with a huge dome. They hoped that it would trap the oil so it could be collected and hauled to shore in ships. That dome became clogged with ice. So workers then put a smaller one in place. This dome, or cap, trapped some oil, but most was still leaking into the sea. BP has now replaced this cap with a tighter one that, we all hope, will capture most or all of the leaking oil.
• Suck It Up. Workers have placed a pipe into the side of the broken blowout preventer. This pipe is collecting oil and natural gas, and carrying them to the surface. There, the gas is being burnt away, and the oil is being taken to shore. Soon workers will add more pipes to the blowout preventer to try to capture still more oil.
• Cut It Off. Workers are drilling two more wells (called relief wells) to try to cut off the oil supply to the leaking well. But it will take until at least the end of July for the first relief well to reach the leaking well.

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Whose fault is it?
Many people blame the oil company, BP (once called British Petroleum), for not taking enough care in drilling for oil so deep in the sea. They say the company tried to save money by not doing all it should have done to make sure the well was safe. People also blame BP for not being better prepared to deal with a disaster like this. And the drilling crew itself may be partly to blame. Some say the workers may have overlooked signs of trouble as they hurried to leave the rig and get on to the next job.

Others are also blaming the U.S. government. They say that officials should have been making and enforcing stronger safety and environmental protection laws. They also say that the clean-up operations could have been managed in a more orderly way.

But you could say that all of us play a part: People all over the world keep demanding—and using—more and more oil. That means more and more oil has to be found and pumped out of the ground. That can be harmful to the Earth even where drilling is easy. But the "easy" oil is almost all gone, so oil companies have to go to places where drilling becomes very risky—like in the deep waters of the Gulf.

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What can people do to change things?

Dolphins in Gulf of Mexico, May 2010

One thing each of us can do is to try to use less oil and other "fossil fuels," and that’s where kids can help. Learn how to help your family live a greener lifestyle, one that uses less oil and fossil fuels. But stopping disasters like this will take a lot more than that. We’ll have to pressure our government officials to make stronger environmental laws and rules. We’ll have to get them to lead the way in getting more energy from the sun, the wind, and other clean and renewable sources. And we’ll have to get them to join with other countries to cut carbon dioxide pollution and stop global warming.

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What can I do to keep from feeling so sad and worried about what's happening? 

It may help a little to know that millions of other people are feeling sad and worried, too. You should also know that from these feelings often comes action! 

There may not be a whole lot kids can do about oil spills and other disasters. But you can tell your parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other grown-ups how you feel—and then ask them what they are going to do to change things. How about getting together with your parents to write a letter to your member of Congress? Or how about asking your teacher to help you learn more about where our energy now comes from—and how we can change? 

Environmental disasters truly are tough on us, on wild creatures, and the wild places we all love and need. But it often takes things like this to make us do what’s right. So let’s not let this one go to waste!  

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