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Light it up? In-situ burning as a possible
tactic for oil spills in the Great Lakes

Is it better to clean up an oil spill using traditional methods of deploying booms and skimming the surface? Or is burning the oil in place the way to go? This summer, Lisa Williams from the Michigan Ecological Service Field Office took part in EPA’s Regional Response Team site-specific in-situ burn workshop in Mackinaw City, Mich. The goal of the meeting was to discuss the feasibility of using in-place burning as an oil spill response technique in the Great Lakes region, specifically the Straits of Mackinac.

The scenario presented was for an August spill in the Straits, so young birds would be flighted and could potentially be hazed from the impact area. Responders discussed a potential open water burn and the trade-offs between producing a smoke plume and burn residue, compared to using traditional tactics like booming and skimming. Burning the oil out in the open water under the right conditions could destroy a large percentage of the spilled oil in a matter of hours.  Traditional tactics generally only capture a much smaller percentage of the spilled oil and may take days to weeks to capture that oil.

Of particular concern to the Service were potential exposure of colonial waterbirds on islands and piping plovers along the shoreline to smoke, and possibly the stress of hazing and captive rearing.  Because the scenario presented was in August, young birds in the area would already be flying and could potentially be hazed from the impact area. The stress from hazing and being exposed to a smoke plume was weighed against the effects of birds becoming oiled, given that mechanical recovery is slower by days or even weeks and generally recovers a much lower percentage of oil.   During this time, hazing would be used to try to keep birds from being exposed to the oil that remained on the surface of the water. Exposure to toxic components of the oil to fish and other aquatic organisms is predicted to be significantly less for an in-situ burn versus mechanical response tactics.

Finally, because a large percentage of the oil could be destroyed in the open water, the risk of oiling along the shoreline would be reduced, as would the the need for response activities along the shoreline.  The Great Lakes shoreline is home to several species of threatened and endangered plants including Houghton's goldenrod, dwarf lake iris and Pitcher's thistle.

Workshop participants included U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Enbridge, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, Village of Mackinaw, Local Tribal representatives, and emergency managers from Mackinac, Emmet, Cheboygan and Charlevoix counties. At the conclusion of the meeting, the multiple parties present agreed that in-situ burning is a viable response option for the situation considered during the meeting. However, there were several follow on items that needed to be addressed before Regional Response Team approval for in-situ burn use during an actual spill.

Lisa Williams
Michigan Ecological Services Field Office 

The Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lakes Michigan and Huron, were the focus of a scenario among partners on responding to an oil spill. Photo courtesy of cmh2351fl/Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/cMEhdC

The Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lakes Michigan and Huron, were the focus of a scenario among partners on responding to an oil spill. Photo courtesy of cmh2351fl/Creative Commons.

 

Last updated: October 6, 2017