CNN Environment News

Small oil spills add up to environmental hazard

April 29, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt

(CNN) -- Images of birds covered in crude oil, their wings tarred to their bodies, standing on beaches blanketed with black ooze have become almost commonplace.


Environmentalists, however, say the impact on the environment of major spills from oil tankers is just a drop in the barrel compared to oil spilled every day.

"What people don't think about is what happens at an oil refinery," said Brent Blackwelder with Friends of the Earth. Pipelines routinely leak and break, he said. (128K AIFF sound or 128K WAV sound)

Pipeline spills reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation average 12 million gallons of petroleum products a year. The Exxon Valdez oil spill, by comparison, spewed out 11 million gallons.

Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency says that more than a quarter of the nations' one million underground gasoline and oil tanks leak. And since Valdez ran aground, smaller oil barges have been responsible for two of the three worst U.S. spills.

The General Accounting Office says an average of 16,000 small oil spills seep into waterways each year -- half of them during loading or unloading operations. In more recent years, the GAO estimates that 46 million gallons have spilled per year, more than four times the Valdez spill.


Legislation to tighten safety regulations on fuel barges and the boats that tow them is pending in Congress. Six years ago, Congress was inspired by the Valdez spill to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which tightened safety and insurance standards for tankers.

Since then, the oil industry has said it has consistently improved its track record. To its credit, there hasn't been another oil disaster the size of Valdez, and the amount spilled or leaked every day is only a small fraction of the 6 billion gallons the U.S. consumes each year.

Nonetheless, Blackwelder said the amount that is spilled amounts to a multi-billion dollar waste, in lost fuel and cleanup expenses.

"We are still spilling and wasting oil," he said. "We're not treating it as if it's a precious commodity -- we're giving it away." (96K AIFF sound or 96K WAV sound)

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