Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Using Fire to Burn off Oil Spill Ignites Debate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Using Fire to Burn off Oil Spill Ignites Debate

Article excerpt

It's been derided as an "aqua-barbeque." Others protest it's a pollution trade-off that fouls the air to clean up the water.

But the Washington State Department of Ecology is pushing ahead with plans for a controversial experiment in oil cleanup that it hopes will eventually save taxpayers millions of dollars and protect coastal wildlife.

The environmental stir is over a plan to dump 10,000 gallons of oil into the ocean about 10 miles off shore and burn it off. Mopping up an oil spill is typically a messy, expensive process once the oil leaks into the sea. Lighting the black goo afire, say some experts, is one of the few promising solutions left on the table.

But it is a trade-off: The process turns water pollution - sticky tar-like substances that linger on the coastlines - into air pollution that disperses large, particulate-laden black plumes of smoke into the atmosphere.

An oil-spill burn has never been the subject of a controlled test in American waters. The Ecology Department and the Northwest Area Committee, a consortium of government and industry groups concerned with oil spills, want to conduct the first this September.

Broken into four spills of about 2,500 gallons each, the tests would measure the effects of the 30- to 45-minute burns and at the same time run what would amount to a high-seas bake-off of four different fire-resistant oil booms.

"If it's good for the environment, then it's cool," says high school student Jodi Autrey, pausing from her summer job of picking up litter on the sandy Pacific Ocean beach. "But I don't think it will be that good."

Greenpeace spokesman Mark Floegel goes further, deriding it as "the great Washington state aqua-barbecue." Like many environmental groups here, he says, Greenpeace would rather see the government focus efforts on prevention. "It's amazing, the kind of momentum you can get behind a bad idea," he says.

Not everyone thinks the test is a bad idea, however. Many regulators, cleanup crews, and oil shippers have great hopes for the burn. …

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