A protocol for assessing the effectiveness of oil spill dispersants in stimulating the biodegradation of oil

Roger C Prince, Josh D Butler
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2014, 21 (16): 9506-10
Dispersants are important tools in oil spill response. Taking advantage of the energy in even small waves, they disperse floating oil slicks into tiny droplets (<70 μm) that entrain in the water column and drift apart so that they do not re-agglomerate to re-form a floating slick. The dramatically increased surface area allows microbial access to much more of the oil, and diffusion and dilution lead to oil concentrations where natural background levels of biologically available oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus are sufficient for microbial growth and oil consumption. Dispersants are only used on substantial spills in relatively deep water (usually >10 m), conditions that are impossible to replicate in the laboratory. To date, laboratory experiments aimed at following the biodegradation of dispersed oil usually show only minimal stimulation of the rate of biodegradation, but principally because the oil in these experiments disperses fairly effectively without dispersant. What is needed is a test protocol that allows comparison between an untreated slick that remains on the water surface during the entire biodegradation study and dispersant-treated oil that remains in the water column as small dispersed oil droplets. We show here that when this is accomplished, the rate of biodegradation is dramatically stimulated by an effective dispersant, Corexit 9500. Further development of this approach might result in a useful tool for comparing the full benefits of different dispersants.

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