Oil spills are one of the most undeniably catastrophic and visible cost of global society’s addiction to oil. And the stakes are getting higher too.

As current pipeline infrastructure ages, spills and leaks become more of a risk. And as easy-to-access oil becomes more scarce, companies and governments dismiss mounting risks and impacts associated with the pursuit of the more unconventional and dangerous sources of oil (e.g. tar sands, offshore and arctic drilling).

From March 11th, 2013 to April 9th, 2013, 13 different oil spills spilt 1,185,000 gallons of oil into the environment. And these are just the ones that actually got reported. From pipeline leaks in Arkansas  and the North West Territories, to train derailments in Minnesota and Ontario, it’s a dirty business moving oil!

Tar sands bitumen is not only more difficult to clean up, but may also be more prone to causing spills and pipeline leaks. Diluted bitumen is more likely to cause corrosion in pipelines and tankers, as it is thicker, more acidic and corrosive than conventional oil. The risks of corrosion are also heightened by the abrasive nature of diluted bitumen. High pressures increase the likelihood that a diluted bitumen pipeline weakened by corrosion will rupture. The presence of the natural gas liquid condensate used to dilute the bitumen increases the risk of any leaked material exploding. Not very heartening news for anyone living near the tar sands or in the current or proposed path of one of its many pipelines, such as the Enbridge and KinderMorgan Pipelines in Canada to the Keystone XL Pipeline in the USA.

When it comes to oil spills, from little leaks to catastrophic spills, what can you do to  protect yourself, your community, and the planet? Big spills like a BP Gulf Horizon would put most of us in a pretty serious damage control mode, and the amount of company and government involvement would make it hard to deploy grassroots bioremediation techniques, as they are often discouraged during professional cleanups. But there is space for grassroots bioremediation, mostly in the aftermath once the company and their cleanup experts have left and gone home (if they ever came in the first place), doing shoreline cleanup or dealing with a small spill, preferably on land.

Oil Spill 101

All oil spills are different, and how they are handled can make all the difference in the severity of impacts down the road, as well as the toll they take on an ecosystem. As a grassroots bioremediator, before you start experimenting with oil spill cleanup, you should first learn the following:

  • How oil spills behave & the  factors that affect oil spill cleanup: There are also many different types of spills to consider, and they all pose their own challenges for cleanup. Response and containment time, type of oil spilt, weather conditions, current/tides/waves, geology of the shoreline and landscape, temperature, and the location of sensitive biological populations all affect how an oil spill will impact the environment.
  • How industry and government clean up oil spills: From Exxon’s famous oil absorbing paper towels to BP’s toxic dispersants, it is important to properly understand the conventional methods used in oil spill response. These methods include containment (booms and skimmers), sorbents, in-situ burning, dispersants, conventional bioremediation, using high pressure hoses, vacuum trucks, and other machines for mechanical oil cleanup. Floating dummies/balloons, water cannons, buoys and horns can be used in attempt to keep wildlife away from a spill site. Floating Dummies, Balloons, Water Cannons, Buoys and Horns. Oil spills are incredibly hard to cleanup, no matter what the companies say. In the case of tar sands bitumen, most conventional methods are ineffective. Most conventional oil spill response can only recover 10-20% of the oil that has spilled into the environment.
  • Contaminants to watch out for: Some of the main contaminants found at oil spills are crude oil, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and heavy metals. In oil spill cleanup, dispersants, surfactants, fertilizers, and detergents can also be added and will contaminate the environment.
  • The human health impacts of oil spills: Many of the chemicals present in the spilled oil, dispersants and other chemicals being used (solvents, detergents, fertilizers) are known to cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, kidney damage, altered renal function and irritation of the digestive tract. They can also cause lung damage, burning pain in the nose and throat, coughing, pulmonary edema, cancer, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat, difficulty breathing, chemical oversensitivity, delayed reaction time and memory difficulties. Further health problems include stomach discomfort, liver and kidney damage, unconsciousness, tiredness/lethargy, irritation of the upper respiratory tract, hematological disorders and death. If that isn’t a list peppered with skulls and crossbones, I’m not sure what is. The main pathways of exposure to the chemicals and their resulting impacts are through inhalation, ingestion, skin and eye contact. Oil spills, especially large ones where conventional cleanup techniques like dispersants are being used, are dangerous situations.
  • The environmental impacts of oil spills: Ecosystems and the wild beings that depend on them suffer greatly from oil spills – many never fully bounce back or recover. These impacts range from population decline and collapse of some wildlife species, disruption and toxification of the food chain, habitat destruction and more!
  • What personal protection gear/equipment is needed in an oil spill situation: Make sure you are wearing the appropriate protective gear and limit your exposure as much as you can! Oil spills are dangerous and toxic situations and, as you can see from the list of health impacts above, they can tragically impact the lives of those who live in their shadow or who do cleanup work on their front lines. Companies and governments cannot be counted on to tell you the truth about what chemicals are being used in cleanup and their health  and environmental impacts . Companies also have a nasty habit of not providing volunteers and workers with necessary and lifesaving protection gear, like respirators. Full and impermeable body coverage should be worn! Finally, the company and the government will not necessarily prompt you to leave the area or to make arrangements for more sensitive communities members, so it is up to you to make the call. Elders, children, pregnant women, any one with autoimmune disorders, cardiac or respiratory illnesses should be evacuated/relocated away from spill and definitely not stay downwind in the week following the spill, especially if dispersants or in situ burning are used as cleanup methods.

Grassroots Bioremediation Oil Spill Cleanup

For grassroots bioremediation of oil spills, different environments, conditions and contamination favour different earth repair approaches.

Fungi have ability to break down bigger hydrocarbon ring structures. Having enough mycelium available to deal with huge amounts of oil is one of the biggest challenges. In most situations, there will likely be more oil spilled than there is mycelium available and ready to deploy. Shipping large volumes of mycelium is expensive and time consuming. The more local folks you have in your region who are cultivating mushrooms, the more mycelium you will have on hand if a crisis ever arises.

It is also important to consider what medium the fungi will be remediating (e.g. saltwater, freshwater or land) as that will determine what mushroom strains or species can be used. Furthermore, we must remember that different oil types will respond differently to mycoremedition. Mycelium more readily degrades hydrocarbons with lower molecular weight (three, four and five-ring, lighter crudes) than heavier-weight hydrocarbons. However, the heavier-weight hydrocarbons can be reduced via mycelial enzymes into lighter-weight hydrocarbons, allowing then for a lengthier, staged breakdown through subsequent mycelial treatments.

Amazingly enough, many medicinal mushrooms grown (like reishi, oyster, turkey tail and shiitake) are not only powerful healers of the land, but also help our bodies be resilient and recover from toxic exposure, as well as fight off cancer. So having fresh sources of these mushrooms for both before, during and after disaster consumption is definitely a bonus!

Pleurotus(oyster mushrooms) growing on oily substrate in open air pits in Ecuador as part of an Amazon Mycorenewal Project bioremediation experiment. Credit: Mia Rose Maltz.

Bacteria also go after bigger to medium hydro-carbon chains. Using bacteria to degrade hydrocarbons is a fairly common practice and has been used by professional clean-up folks. Grassroots bioremediators could try spraying regular and large doses of actively aerated compost tea (or some professionally-made and purchased/or donated bacterial inoculant specific to degrading oil) on the oil slick to unleash the power of microorganisms to break it down. Or compost tea or inoculants  could be mixed with compost to give microorganisms a good habitat and some other food sources. Hydrocarbon contaminated soil can also be thermophyllically composted down, but this has to be done carefully and with the proper precautions to avoid environmental contamination or health impacts. Be aware that you could potentially increase the volume of contaminated soil if your remediation is unsuccessful. You could also add in a nitrogen amendment, like kelp or seaweed, or an amendment with phosphorous, like chicken manure or bone meal, to boost the activity of your microorganisms. When oil contaminates water, oxygenating the water is a good bet, as that helps with stimulating microbial action. So if you have the ability and equipment to aerate and a smaller and more contained water body, go for it.


Plants can take up smaller chain hydrocarbons and nutrients that bacteria make available. Their roll is often dealing with residual oil spill pollution, not necessarily in the first response. For example, using fast growing trees, such as poplars, willows or black locust, to access deeper hydrocarbon plumes at old gas station sites. Some plants which have shown promise when it comes to dealing with PAH’s are: Poplar, Pine, Tall Fescue, Red Fescue, Black Locust, Willow, Sunflower, White Clover, Yellow Sweet Clover, Red Clover, Bermuda grass, Western Wheatgrass, Blue Grama Grass, Buffalograss, Canada Wildrye, Perennial Ryegrass, California White Sage, Switchgrass, Red Mulberry, Alfalfa, Apple, Cat Claw, and Pumpkin.

Another way that plants could be used to assist with oil spill contamination is through the installation of floating islands. The concept is that rafts of aquatic plants can mimic some of the services provided in nature by wetlands, filtering and cleaning water. These living structures engage both the processes of phytoremediation and microbial remediation. The roots of aquatic plants hold the islands together while also creating a rich habitat for algae, bacteria, zooplankton and other creatures to live. Microorganisms play a large part in breaking down the contaminants. Using the habitat created by the floating island, microorganisms create a biofilm that covers the plant roots and floating island matrix. Contaminants in the water are either consumed and degraded by this biofilm or they are phytoremediated via the plant roots.

Natural Sorbents and booms
Making your own natural sorbents and booms can be useful in cleaning up spilled oil. Sorbents are used to  sop up and collect oil off beaches, shorelines, and rocks. Booms are used to contain oil spills and keep them from spreading. In conventional oil spill cleanup, synthetic sorbents tend to be used and then thrown away. Below are some more organic options that you are likely to find or be able to make in your own community. Then you can either dispose of them and the oil (as hazardous waste) , or you can remediate and break them down using bacteria and/or fungi.
  • Hairmats and hairbooms
  • Straw and mycelliated straw
  • Mycobooms
  • Coconut coir
  • Peat Moss
  • Sawdust

Preventative and Precautionary Community Measures

Responding to an oil spill is responding to a hazardous waste clean-up situation. In disastrous spills, what can your community safely do? Just as knowledge is power when it comes to better understanding the na- ture of an oil spill and the conventional methods used to handle it, let’s explore a few preventative measures to minimize the impact on yourself, your community and the Earth in the event of a big spill. Many of these measures also apply for smaller spills.
  • Demand that dispersants and in situ burning not be used by the company unless it is absolutely necessary: These clean-up methods are controversial and can create a potentially dangerous environmental and health situation for your community. There are times when using a dispersant may be warranted, but it is rare. Get an independent, non-company, non-governmental expert opinion. Not using dispersants, especially in huge quantities, could re- duce a huge host of toxic impacts, for both people and wildlife. Some studies have found that the chemicals used in dispersants can be more toxic and fatal than the crude itself. If dispersants end up being used, which is likely since they are favored by industry since they are so good at hiding the problem, make sure that dispersants are not being sprayed around you, upwind of you or on you (this has happened accidental- ly in clean-up operations). Make sure they are not being sprayed in conditions that would disperse them towards other clean-up crews or vulnerable populations. Same is true of in situ burning; if a company is doing this, make sure to evacuate folks from downwind communities or clean-up operations.
  • Demand that the company or government provide folks with the appropriate protective gear, hazardous materials training, full disclosure of chemicals being used and their health impacts: Do your research, figure out what you need to have to be safe and fight hard to make sure you and your fellow responders have it. This also applies for if you are organizing your own response: Suit Up!
  • Organize your own community spill safety response team and/or community monitoring program:  It would be advantageous to organize a group or council of community members who can act as a well-informed advocacy and advisory group on oil spill response. This group can come up with their own community oil spill response plan and offer trainings to the community so that folks are better prepared and have some key response skills. This group can also communicate with or pressure companies and key government agencies to disclose their spill response plan so that it can be scrutinized by independent sources and likely beefed up to ensure better response resources and procedures. Community advocates can pressure a company to make sure that more oil response resources (such as booms, sorbents, boats and skim- mers) and protective gear are kept locally, and in a sufficient amount for a strong and quick response. You should not expect a company to notify you of spills. Sometimes they try to cover it up, and often they underplay it. Many companies have shown a habit of no notification and then slow response and sometimes even no response to spills. It can fall on citizens to report these spills and to convince the government and media of the scale of the problem. If you live in a community where the company has already proven itself untrustworthy and you know you cannot rely on them to either properly monitor or report spills, then organize a local community watch group to keep an eye out for signs of spills. This may mean having folks walk the length of a pipeline, or riding, boating or paddling up waterways to make sure there are no signs of oil sheens.
  • Build the infrastructure for a grassroots bioremediation response: Preexisting training and infrastructure are needed in order to be able to effectively respond to a spill. Invest in and encourage folks from your community to attend mycoremediation and mushroom cultiva- tion workshops and training. Have folks seek training in microbial remediation oil spill cleanup or de-oiling wildlife first responder course. Get aquainted with the different safety protocols and gear you will need. Start up a mushroom cultivation operation or farm (or have a good relationship with one), thereby having mushroom spawn and spent inoculated substrate in large quantities locally that would allow for you to respond in that way to an oil spill. Also build and stockpile things like natural sorbents and booms so that you have them on hand. Have several high-volume compost tea brewers available for use. You may also need access to boats, hoses, places to dispose of oiled materials, rakes and shovels 
  • Prepare community healers: Earth care needs to also involve people care. Reach out to local health practitioners and healers to provide them with information on the health impacts of oil spills and symptoms associated with its different chemical exposures so that these healers are able to properly diagnose, provide meaningful treatment and advocate for first responders and community members in the event of a spill. Work with herbalists and other healers to come up with potential detoxification treatments for responders and impacted communities, as well as supplements people can take to boost their defenses and abilities to flush out harmful chemicals as they do their work.

The Best Medicine is Preventative Medicine: Grassroots Resistance! 

If you want to dedicate yourself to healing the land, engage in preventative medicine and allow your work to extend beyond the physical and into the political. Oppose tar sands, pipelines and tankers. Oppose the offshore drilling and Arctic drilling. And yes in so many ways that is hard to do, especially in our  oil-dependent culture. But oil is a finite resource, and our addiction to it is changing the climate, killing the planet, and poisoning frontline communities. We know that when it comes to oil, accidents happen, they will continue to happen, and many of the more unconventional sources cannot be cleaned up no matter what the corporations and governments promise. Unchecked and unopposed, the damage will be too great and devastating to the earth, the oceans, the rivers and the wild communities who depend on them.

Organize, mobilize and resist pipelines, tankers, offshore exploration and tar sands! When it comes to earth repair and grassroots bioremediation tools for oil spills, grassroots resistance is the best medicine! If you don’t want a spill to happen in the first place, you need to remove the infrastructure and practices that lead to it. Organize and mobilize to resist, stop and shut down irresponsible projects that cause spills. And for the oily infrastructure already in place, pressure the government and companies to have current and rigorous spill response plans, high safety standards, and regular maintenance and monitoring.

Oil spill response and cleanup is a complex subject and a dangerous situation to enter into. Arm yourself with information and do your research! More detailed information about oil spills, conventional cleanup methods, health risks, grassroots bioremediation tools, protective gear, and preventative and precautionary measures for your community can be found in Earth Repair.