Innovative research: Spilling oil to protect the environment

A unique science experiment is underway in a remote area of northwestern Ontario: Researchers are intentionally spilling oil into contained areas within a natural lake to learn more about how oil spills affect freshwater ecosystems, and how to best clean them up.

This innovative research is happening at a one-of-a-kind facility, comprised of 58 small lakes and their watersheds. The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The lakes are untouched by humans and have been specifically set aside for scientific research into human impacts on freshwater ecosystems—everything from microplastics, to oil spills.

“This is a really unique project because it isn’t just us as an independent scientific organization – we’ve included the regulatory community, government departments, academics across North America and industry,” said Vince Palace, head research scientist at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area. “The end goal of this whole project is to take these experiences and communicate them to people who can use them – spill responders and the regulatory community.”

In 2019, researchers set up 18 enclosures, isolating a section of the shoreline to create a model ecosystem for the rest of the lake. They intentionally spilled diluted bitumen into the enclosures and cleaned up what was on the surface, which removed about 10 to 15 per cent of the oil. Researchers used the remaining 85 per cent of the spilled oil to test a variety of cleanup methods including shoreline cleaners, engineered floating wetlands that stimulate the bacterial community, and adding nutrients to the water.

“We did see oil constituents in the water after the spill, but by 80 days after the spill, we really were back down to almost background concentrations,” said Palace. “Now that we’re at 550 days, we really can’t discern the differences between the oil treated enclosures and the reference enclosures.”

The initial findings are pointing to some interesting results, which may change the way companies clean up oil spills in the future. Palace says a longer, natural recovery type of approach may be more effective and less damaging to the environment than traditional methods such as digging out the soil, cleaning it and returning it to the water. He says this approach may be a tougher sell publicly.

“Companies, transporters, regulators… they want to be seen to be doing something – getting the oil out of the environment,” said Palace. “But if there is scientifically defensible data to say that is not the best approach, that is what this project is all about.”

While more data analysis needs to be done, Palace says the enclosures will be removed this spring.

“We can remove those enclosures without worrying that we’re contaminating the whole lake because we have the detailed chemistry to back it up,” said Palace. “We always have to ensure that we’re able to put the lake back to its original condition and we’ve been able to demonstrate that already.”

This summer, seven new enclosures will be built to replicate the study with conventional heavy crude. At that point, it’s a matter of completing the analysis and wrapping the research up.

The findings will be shared publicly and with government, regulators, industry and other experts to shape policy and practices around emergency management. This growing body of knowledge supports CEPA members in their commitment to minimizing environmental impacts and protecting the natural environment.