Ecological Ramifications

NOAA scientists have determined that beaches treated with hot water recover more slowly than those left untreated. Not only does hot water sterilize, but it drives oil from the more desolate beach areas where fewer organisms live to the subtidal zone occupied by clams and other crustaceans more sensitive to oil than the barnacles and mussels found on the more exposed intertidal areas. Subtidal invertebrates proved to be highly vulnerable to the oil spilled from the Amoco Cadiz tanker in 1978 off the coast of Brittany.10

The high pressure washes (at pressures up to 100 psi) can also cause shifting beach sediment that can suffocate clams and worms, impeding recolonization. The recovery of the ecosystem after the 68-million-gallon Amoco Cadiz oil spill suggests the best cleanup strategy might be to allow nature to run its own course. As NOAA chief scientist Sylvia A. Earle has said, "Sometimes the best, and ironically the most difficult, thing to do in the face of an ecological disaster is to do nothing."12

In contrast, the EPA believes that physical cleaning of the beaches by Exxon dispersed the oil such that the greater surface area of the exposed oil allowed for enhanced biodegradation., which was limited only to the availability of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients. The application of nitrogen- and phosphorus-containing fertilizers (bioremediation), according to EPA, caused no adverse ecological effects. Musselsn suspended in floating cages just offshore from the treated beaches exhibited no bioaccumulation.13

Beach cleaning was also recommended by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, whose agenda was to ensure a clean breeding site for seals and sea lions. Furthermore, the state officials contended that the oil had already suffocated most of the intertidal life.14