Oil Spills

When people talk about oil spills, they often do so only in terms of large spills encompassing thousands of barrels of oil in a single incident. Visually striking, the images from these spills splash across newspapers, get extended attention on television shows, and often feature as the centerpiece of online articles. Unquestionably harmful to the environment, coverage of these catastrophes has over time created a false perception that these large spills are the primary threat, while less sensational reports which show that the big spills actually form the smaller portion of oil entering our rivers, lakes and oceans are generally ignored by media outlets trying to hold the attention of the public.

In truth, every drop of an oil product that escapes us will at some point end up contaminating the soil or being washed into the water systems around us. The cumulative effect of small leaks from cars, drips of oil from hydraulic cylinders on heavy machinery, the few drops we spill while fill up cars, boats and small appliances actually far exceeds the amount of oil released in big spills every year. To combat this, however, is not the glamorous fight of celebrities cleaning oil-coated animals or highly placed corporate executives being called before government committees – it requires instead that most difficult of fights: the fight to get a small amount of sustained effort from every individual, business, and level of government over a long period of time.

As an example, it is currently estimated that there are over 78 million storm drain inlets across North America. Each and every one of these provides a place where oil run-off from roads, parking lots and other structures can be carried directly into municipal sewer systems and onto our lakes and rivers – largely untreated, as most regions do not have infrastructure in place to deal with diluted oil in water.

Does the technology exist to protect these drains?

Does it cost money to protect these drains?

Are we willing to pay?
This is always the stumbling block to protecting our environment from ourselves – it is almost always cheaper in terms of time, money and effort to destroy, pollute and despoil than to protect.

What can I do about it?
First, be aware of what you do yourself – are you throwing out that empty bottle of engine oil with the trash, or disposing of it properly? Are you taking the extra few seconds of care to make sure you don’t spill a stream of gasoline when you fill your car?

Second, take the few minutes to find out what problems are worst in your community, and what groups are already trying to do to make a difference.

Finally, make sure that other people know you care about it. One person privately acting to clean up their habits will help, but one person being a visible role model to those around them can have a far greater influence.


Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History