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Finding oil spill solutions

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From the Herald-Tribune:

Although it is tempting for residents around the Gulf Coast to limit their conversations to complaints about the oil spill, it is even more important to talk about solutions, and educate ourselves about the scientific process of “ecosystem restoration.”

Employing the best solutions is critical to the future of jobs, economy, ecology, tourism and quality of life in Florida and throughout the Gulf states. Insisting on the best solutions to this catastrophe will require citizens with a sound education of restoration ecology. This science is defined as “restoring the natural cycles to a disturbed or damaged landscape.”

In a nutshell, here are 10 ways to clean up oil from water bodies. While each has potential benefits, most restoration processes also involve drawbacks:

1.Manual shoreline cleanup — Although time-consuming and requires training, this is a great way to utilize large teams of volunteers.

2.High-pressure washing — Pressure-cleaning can actually damage more delicate organisms, but may be effective for sea walls, boats and other surfaces.

3.Natural recovery — Eventually Mother Nature will do the best job of any restoration actions, but she requires a relatively long timeline, perhaps beyond our lifetimes.

4.Dispersants — Chemicals break down surface oil effectively, but they actually break the oil into smaller particles which can enter the food chains and contaminate ecosystems for generations.

5.Burning — If oil slicks are collected into thick mats, burning reduces the chance of onshore oil, but the resulting black smoke and particulates produce a different type of pollution.

6.Booms and skimmers — This labor-intensive equipment is very effective with few side effects, but is best used near the source before the oil disperses. Booms can be effective in keeping oil away from delicate areas such as bird rookeries, public beaches, or harbors; but placement is tricky and uncertain.

7.Absorbent materials — Pads, bark-chip mats or other large sponge-like substances can absorb oil, but then require removal themselves as toxic waste.

8.Vegetation cutting — Removing marsh grass or other oily vegetation usually does more harm to the integrity of the ecosystem than the benefits of a relatively small amount of oil removal.

9.Mechanical removal — Bull-dozing and hauling away oily sediments such as blackened beach sand are appropriate for heavily soiled areas, but usually does more harm to the ecosystem over time than the short-term aesthetic benefits.

10.Use less oil — The most powerful action for cleaning oil spills is to avoid them altogether. One important solution is embarrassingly missing from most regional, and even national, conversations: conservation of fuel.

Americans may be missing the biggest educational solution or teaching moment of the Gulf catastrophe if parents and policymakers overlook these three important words: Use less oil.

Margaret Lowman is director of Environmental Initiatives at New College of Florida.

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