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July/August 2010

Mopping Up

Standards for Oil Spill Cleanup and Toxicity Assessment

The ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is testing the boundaries of today’s technology. ASTM International standards are coming into play in the efforts to clean up the gulf and evaluate food-chain exposure to toxins.

It’s a sad fact of life that it often takes a catastrophe to spotlight a chronic issue. The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t the largest oil spill ever. That record is currently held by the 36 billion gallons1 [93 million m3] that retreating Iraqi forces uncorked when they left Kuwait in 1991. But oil spills are far from rare.

“Oil spills of 1,000 gallons [3.8 m3] or so are actually routine occurrences throughout the world,” says Mervin Fingas, an independent consultant in Alberta, Canada, veteran member of ASTM International Committee F20 on Hazardous Substances and Oil Spill Response, and author of a definitive resource on oil spill response, The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup. “Eight to nine spills occur daily in Canada, with about 10 times that many happening in the U.S.”

The Deepwater spill is especially disconcerting because of its location in the Gulf of Mexico (both deep undersea and far off the U.S. shore) and its nature (a continuous, rather than more readily controlled and contained one-point spill, such as a leaking tanker or a ruptured pipeline).

“If [the Deepwater Horizon spill] can’t be stopped, reduced or controlled, it’s going to be in our face for a long time,” says Alvin “Mike” Crickard, logistics management specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard, in Elizabeth City, N.C., and member-at-large of ASTM Committee F20.

The Role of Standards

The potentially enduring economic and environmental consequences of this gulf spill demonstrate the crucial significance of the standards developed over the past 35 years by ASTM International Committee F20. According to Peter Lane, president of Applied Fabric Technologies in Orchard Park, N.Y., and F20 committee chairman, nearly half of the 56 standards overseen by the committee will come into play sooner or later, directly or indirectly, as the Deepwater Horizon spill evolves.

Since 1975, the oil producers, regulators, equipment suppliers and manufacturers who have written the standards for Committee F20 have not necessarily anticipated the political turmoil, extreme engineering challenges or human failure that have characterized more recent oil spills. But their standards have grown to cover just about every aspect of response from control, removal and treatment to in-situ burning, surveillance and tracking, shoreline measures and bioremediation.

Booms and Skimmers

Among the more significant standards developed by Committee F20 have been those related to booms, the long, sausage-like devices that corral slicks during the initial stages of a spill. ASTM International standards F962, Specification for Oil Spill Response Boom Connection: Z-Connector, and F2438, Specification for Oil Spill Response Boom Connection: Slide Connector, ensure that compliant booms link together, much like the perfect fit of standardized electrical plugs and wall sockets.

Fingas, who chairs F20 subcommittees on in-situ burning and remote sensing and detection, says, “It has taken 20 years to align manufacturers to produce better, stronger booms that meet an industry standard and that connect together, no matter what their size and shape.” In the case of the gulf spill, the crews in fishing boats, laying miles of booms, “may have been among the most effective control measures, catching oil in the initial stages of the spill and preventing it from coming to shore,” he says.

Working in conjunction with booms are skimmers, the otherworldly looking equipment that uses vacuums, disks, brushes and other devices to remove oil from the water’s surface. Committee F20 has developed a number of standards related to equipment selection and testing, but a more recent standard, F2709, Test Method for Determining Nameplate Recovery Rate of Stationary Oil Skimmer Systems, holds manufacturers responsible for accurately reporting the capabilities of their skimmers. The standard specifies the skimmer capacity that is actually needed to clean up certain types of oil spills.

“Mechanical means of combating an oil spill — booms, skimmers and temporary storage facilities — can be effective, weather permitting and provided they’re operated continuously,” explains Crickard.

In-Situ Burning

The Deepwater Horizon spill has required still other measures during initial response. In-situ burning involves corralling concentrated areas of oil within fireproof booms, moving the collected oil away from other cleanup operations and setting fire to it. Early on, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted a series of small in-situ burns, clearing the gulf’s surface of some of the oil.

“Previously, there were a lot of myths about what in-situ burning could accomplish,” says Fingas. ASTM F2152, Guide for In-Situ Burning of Spilled Oil: Fire-Resistant Boom, “was a landmark ASTM standard, where the standard was actually developed in conjunction with the creation and testing of an improved fire-resistant boom.” The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Minerals Management Service and Environment Canada, among other groups, worked together, setting up a series of test basins in Mobile, Ala., to develop a superior product and ASTM International standards. Committee F20 is also responsible for F1788, Guide for In-Situ Burning of Oil Spills on Water: Environmental and Operational Considerations. F1788 is designed to aid decision makers and spill responders in contingency planning, spill response and training.


Dispersants are yet another surface control measure; they are super-strength detergents, usually sprayed onto oil slicks from airplanes. Dispersants break down oil slicks into tiny droplets that are driven into the water column and almost instantly turn into a cloud with more volume than the initial slick. The cloud eventually disappears as it’s picked up by currents and dispersed into the vastness of the ocean. Over time, sunlight and microorganisms biodegrade the oil. But, for dispersants to be effective, conditions have to be right — fresh and thick oil, plus some wave agitation to mix the oil and water.

“Most oils are initially dispersible,” explains Steve Potter, vice president of SL Ross Environmental Research Ltd., Ontario, Canada. “The more they weather and the more viscous they become, the more difficult it is for dispersants to act effectively. ”

According to Lane, the Deepwater Horizon spill triggered one of the “first large-scale uses of dispersants,” certainly one of the first in the United States.

“ASTM has had a minor influence on the development of dispersants in that we’ve helped get rid of bad concepts and helped design delivery systems,” says Fingas. For example, among other standards dealing with dispersants is ASTM F1413, Guide for Oil Spill Dispersant Application Equipment: Boom and Nozzle Systems.

Surveillance and Tracking

With the Deepwater Horizon slick at one point measuring more than 80 miles [130 km] wide and more than 140 miles [230 km] long,2 surveillance and tracking has been especially crucial because what sometimes appears to be a slick might not be.

“You have cloud shadows, features on the bottom, and organic materials that can mimic oil,” says Lane, explaining the challenges of reporting and tracking spills. Also, adds Potter, “It’s crucial that the parties involved speak the same language during large incidents.”

That’s where ASTM F1779, Practice for Reporting Visual Observations of Oil on Water, has come into play. “I’ve been e-mailing friends working at the spill, and that’s one standard that’s definitely being used,” says Fingas. Committee F20 is also responsible for F2534, Guide for Visually Estimating Oil Spill Thickness on Water.

Shoreline Measures and Bioremediation

Later-stage response measures kick into action as oil spills spread. In heavier concentrations, oil can have a toxic, smothering effect. Depending on the situation, it is sometimes effective to reduce concentration by adding nutrients or fertilizers. For wildlife, though, ingesting oil, while attempting to clean soiled fur or feathers, amounts to a death sentence.

As oil hits land, says Crickard, “Cleanup operations become very labor intensive, primarily using workers with buckets and shovels to scoop oily mousse (brown water emulsified oil) into trash bags.”

ASTM F2464, Guide for Cleaning of Various Oiled Shorelines and Habitats, provides techniques for addressing and documenting shoreline cleanup activities in a systematic and consistent way.

“The areas under greatest near-term threat from the Deepwater Horizon spill are marshes and delta forms,” says Potter. “If an area is lightly oiled, sometimes the proper choice is to not undertake a cleanup because it will create more harm than good. If the area is heavily oiled, you might use water streams to flush it and skimmers to pick up the oil.” In some cases, he says, the best choice is burning, a technique addressed by ASTM F2823, Guide for In-Situ Burning of Oil Spills in Marshes. “It may seem like a repugnant choice, but wetlands will recover from that,” Potter says.

Additionally, there are Committee F20 standards related to bioremediation, which rely on oil-eating microbes. Right now those standards are “very elementary,” according to Fingas. “They provide language and concepts but little protocol for carrying out bioremediation techniques.”


Adsorbents are used in the final stages of an oil spill cleanup. Generally made from plastics, they pick up oil coming onto shore or, “as the paper towel of the oil spill business, provide the final polish,” says Fingas. ASTM F726, Test Method for Sorbent Performance of Adsorbents, offers guidelines for what to use under what circumstances.

Challenges Ahead

Of course the effectiveness of any cleanup operation depends on fickle weather and ocean currents, the properties of the oil involved and the success or failure of all the strategies used to plug leaks and stop the oil from flowing. If the Deepwater Horizon spill demonstrates the significance of the existing standards created by ASTM International Committee F20 on Hazardous Substances and Oil Spill Response, then it also raises the question of what new standards may be required to address spills at sites involving extreme engineering and difficult access.

“All of us in the community try to apply lessons learned. We might be tweaking existing standards,” says Potter. “We always reevaluate after any spill.”

Fingas points to the issue of research funding. “Control agencies and research organizations don’t have the ability to do long-term meaningful research on spills and spill response. We’re always fighting for funding.” Potter agrees. “We need a less reactionary and more stable interest in oil spills,” he says. “Interest comes and goes. The Deepwater Horizon spill shows the importance of keeping at it. Otherwise, these things tend to fall off the radar.”

On the standards development side, Lane expects that Committee F20 members, who next meet Oct. 12-13 in San Antonio, Texas, may have new ideas for safety standards, among others. And Crickard wants to hear from more producers, manufacturers, regulators and end users. “The more people we have in the pool comprising our committee, the more voices we’ll have to help improve our standards and to vastly improve our oil spill response system.”

1. Broder, J.K., and Zeller, Tom Jr., “Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?” New York Times, May 5, 2010.
2. Mufson, Steven, and Achenbach, Joel, “BP Sticks Tube in Leaking Well,” Washington Post, May 17, 2010.

Learn more about standards from another ASTM comittee, E47 on Biological Effects and Environmental Fate, related to toxicity testing.

Adele Bassett is a freelance writer who has covered everything from youth gangs in Colorado to earthquakes in Connecticut while working for a variety of corporations and publications. She holds a B.A. in English, an M.S. in journalism and an M.B.A.