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You have oil spill questions, we have answers

Boats tow oil retention booms as oil is skimmed from the surface of the gulf near the Deep Horizon spill on Thursday.

Associated Press

Boats tow oil retention booms as oil is skimmed from the surface of the gulf near the Deep Horizon spill on Thursday.

What would happen to Tampa Bay Water's expensive desalination plant if the oil spill reached here?

If any bit of oil got into the plant, it would be bad. But so far, officials do not expect the oil to reach TECO's Big Bend plant, where the desal plant pulls its water from, said Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman Michelle Rapp. If the spill appears to be heading toward the plant, it would be shut down, stopping all water intake. The Big Bend plant probably would shut down first, she said.

How close is the spill to hitting land? And how long will it affect the shoreline?

On Thursday, the oil hit Freemason Island, a Louisiana bird sanctuary. Given the pattern of winds and currents, more areas along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida are likely to be hit. The mess could range from traces of residue to thick swaths of crude oil.

Likewise, currents eventually will carry some oil into the Atlantic Ocean, but it is hard to predict when and how much. At this point, it is very possible the Tampa Bay area could remain relatively clear. But the spill is growing by the day.

NOAA publishes daily forecasts at

Where does all the oily water go after it is sucked up by skimmers and booms?

A floating skimmer, lined with a chemical that attracts oil, sucks fuel from the ocean surface and a pump forces the collected liquid into a tanker. The water drops to the bottom of the tank. The water is sucked out from the bottom, and the remaining oil gets pumped into a second tank to repeat the process. After three or four rounds, what's left is almost 100 percent oil.

The purest oil from a spill is a more diluted version of the original. Once separated from the water, refineries can process it for cars, furnaces and the manufacture of milk jugs.

Oil that may have weathered or has been contaminated with debris and seawater might be directly deposited in controlled landfills or used in land reclamation and road building. Or it will be burned.

What happens to all the oily, hairy pantyhose booms used to soak up oil?

The booms can be reused up to 100 times, according to San Francisco's Matter of Trust and other groups collecting such items. After the hair inside the hose soaks up as much oil as possible, the booms can be squeegeed into an oil barge to recycle the oil. Then they can go back in the water for this or future spills.

Where are oily animals that are cleaned released if their natural habitat is covered with oil?

The short answer: somewhere else. Most wildlife rescue organizations have a long, multi-step process to clean, treat and house the animals before releasing them back into a clean habitat.

However, some experts say that such rescue efforts are not cost effective and that the animals usually die anyway from ingesting oil and other problems.

Why does the oil have that weird orange color?

Some speculate the oil appears orange because iron is in it or because of a chemical used to disperse it. But scientists say the color is the result of the oil becoming emulsified, or mixed with water, as it rose to the surface. But emulsified oil hampers cleanup efforts at the surface because dispersants don't break it up as effectively as unmixed oil.

What's in the chemical they're pouring on the oil and will it do more harm than good?

Corexit is one of the main dispersants, which break up oil into tiny droplets that sink below the water's surface, where naturally occurring bacteria consume them. Without dispersants, oil stays on the surface, where bacteria can't get at it, according to Nalco, the Illinois manufacturer.

Nalco officials say Corexit's active ingredient is an emulsifier found in ice cream and is not harmful to marine life. Many scientists and environmentalists strongly disagree.

Tarpon Springs' Southern Shrimp Alliance recently sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA arguing that while the dispersants may reduce the oil's effect on shoreline habitat they may be harming countless species of marine life in the process.

Sources: Reuters,, International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited, Chemical & Engineering News, the Sunshine and Shores Foundation, Discovery News, New York Times.

You have oil spill questions, we have answers 05/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 11:28pm]
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