Environmental Science/Oil Spills

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Question
Dear Mr. Russell

I have a rather simple, maybe even dumb question, about oil spills. I read a lot about them in the newspaper, from the Exxon Valdez spill to the recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that released huge quantities of oil into the environment. I know this is obviously a bad thing for the ecosystem for many reasons. However, my question is, given that oil is just the buried organic remains of plants, bones, shells, etc. that lived a long long time ago, why is it so toxic when released into the environment? Of course, if it's not raw oil and has been distilled/transformed in an industrial plant, then ok, maybe it's toxic. But I don't understand why releasing old plant remains would be so harmful when it seems like oil is just a "natural" part of the earth? Am I missing something?

Thank you.

Answer
No, Andy, you aren't missing anything.
When simple organic matter decays it generally goes to organic acids, some aldehydes, Carbon Dioxide and Water and a little free Hydrogen, and some Hydrogen Sulfide, Ammonia, and other simple organic matter. However, the organic matter which forms oils has been subject to high pressure and temperature for a long period of time. That transforms the organic matter into a number of compounds we call crude oil. The heat and pressure transform the breakdown compounds and cause them to combine in strange ways and form cyclic compounds (think of a hexagon made out of carbon atoms), or look up benzene, toluene, and xylene on Wikipedia. These compounds tend to form additional compounds which then link together to form multi-ring compounds called cyclic organic compounds, and they can combine by sharing atomic bonds.
The problem with these compounds is that they often form compounds which are difficult for bacterial life to break back down (think of asphalt). These compounds often interfere with natural biological processes, even to the point of killing the organism which they enter. This is toxicity.
It is the transformation of the organic matter into the chemical soup we call oil, that generates the toxicity. Toxicity comes in all degrees and sizes of compounds.
Hope that helps, as that's about the easiest explanation I can come up with.
Dave

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David L. Russell, PE

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I`m a Chemical,Civil and Environmental Engineer and have a number of projects in all phases of the environment. I have worked in the chemical industry and am active in professional societies, and am currently on an industrial wastes committee for the Water Environment Federation, and have taught courses in remediation in the US and abroad. I have written one book on Remediation of petroleum Contaminated Sites, and have a second book on PRACTICAL WASTEWATER TREATMENT to be published by John Wiley in September, 2006. I've also written over 30 articles on various elements of environmental problems and cleanup. Most Recently, I have addressed a NATO Scientific and Techical Conference on Ecoterrorism, and have worked with the same group on remediation of sites contaminated with Chemical Warfare Agent materials and othe materials as well. . I can answer q`s about Chemical and Environmental Engineering, land development, air pollution, water pollution, soil and water cleanup, combustion, international environmental problems, industrial processes chemical processes. Civil and Environmental and Chemical Engineering. Overall, I have over 35 years of experience in this area. Note: I do not answer homework questions

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I love work in the third world and developing areas because it is challenging and one can get a sense of accomplishment.

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