Environmental Law

Water and Soil Pollution After an Oil Spill

Two-thirds of the Earth is water, and one-third is land or soil. Oil spills affect both. Spills on land obviously impact the soil around the site, and may impact ground water and surface waters, like rivers and lakes. Likewise, spills at sea, such as the 2010 Gulf disaster, may contaminate soil and water miles away from the site.

Who has to cleanup the mess?


Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), anyone responsible for the spill has to pay for cleaning up contaminated water and soil. That's on top of the other fines and penalties oil companies and others may have to pay under the OPA and other state and federal environmental laws.

Who's "responsible?" As a general rule, a responsible party under the OPA is anyone - including corporations and other businesses - who had a hand in the spill. For example, Transocean Ltd., the company that owns the oil drilling rig that exploded in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum (BP), the oil company that hired Transocean to run the drilling operations, and Halliburton, which helped set up the oil rig, may all be responsible for cleaning up the Gulf oil spill.

Clean What?

Practically everything contaminated by oil from the spill needs to be cleaned (called "remediation"). Under the OPA, responsible parties have to clean or remove oil - or take steps to minimize health risks to the general public and wildlife - from:

  • The soil at or near the spill site, or soil affected by the spill, such as beaches
  • Waters at or near the site, such as rivers, lakes, streams and coastal sea areas, like the Gulf of Mexico
  • Marshes, wetlands and other water bodies affected by the spill, including groundwater tables and drinking water supplies

Federal and state environmental agencies test soil and water to check for contamination and decide what, if anything, needs to be cleaned. For example, as of late-May 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency has found no evidence of contamination of drinking water in areas affected by the Gulf oil spill. However, it's clear massive soil and surface water clean-up is necessary in and around the Gulf.

Cleaning Methods

There are several ways to clean oil-contaminated water and soil:

  • Where oil is spilled at sea and there's little or no danger of it reaching shore, oil may be left alone so that wind, rain, sun and ocean waves can break up and disperse the oil naturally
  • Chemical dispersants can be released into oil spills in the water. The dispersants break-down the oil so it dilutes into the water
  • Use "booms" and "skimmers" to collect oil as it floats on top of water. The collected oil is stored until it can be disposed of safely
  • Use biological agents (similar to dispersants) that break down oil in the soil or sand
  • Removing or "dredging" contaminated soil or sand and replacing it. The contaminated soil can be taken to a central location where it can be treated with chemical or biological agents

Clean-up plans and strategies typically have to be approved by the EPA, or the US Coast Guard if the spill is in US coastal waters, like the Gulf Of Mexico, as well as by state environmental agencies. Cleaned water and soil has to meet safety standards set by the EPA.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have any say in how my beachfront property is cleaned?
  • If I want to sell my property, do I have to disclose to potential buyers that the property was affected by an oil spill?
  • Can contaminated solids and sand be used for construction purposes, such as making cement or bricks? Are there any health risks if cement used to build my new home contains that contaminated material?
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