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High tech doesn't really help with oil spills

Despite regular oil spills around the globe, the cleanup and recovery community doesn't seem all that interested in high-tech solutions.

One of the most frequent methods used in containing oil spills is the deployment of booms, as seen here after the November 7 oil spill in San Francisco Bay.
U.S. Coast Guard

Just under two weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk here at CNET when I saw a bulletin online that a ship had hit the Bay Bridge. The bulletin was very short and to the point, and really just said that there was no structural damage to the bridge. We laughed about it for a few minutes and moved on.

I didn't think more about it until the next morning when I logged onto SFGate. There, I read that, in fact, the damage that had been done by the so-called Cosco Busan accident had been to the extremely fragile ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay estuary. It turned out that 58,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker oil had spilled out of the ship and into the bay. And already, the article explained, dozens or even hundreds of shorebirds were being found covered in oil, and many were expected to die.

Well, this is old news now. But what may not be known is how small a role high technology is playing in the recovery of this spill or any of the many major spills that happen regularly around the globe.

It turns out, as I wrote in a full story on Tuesday, that the cleanup and recovery community is pretty much married to the same industrial equipment and methods it has been using for oil spills for years, and that with a few small exceptions, software and cutting-edge communications equipment are not really involved.

I suppose I don't really know myself how such technology could be implemented, but it seems, in this day and age, that there must be ways to do so.

One example, it seems to me, is to find ways to utilize technology to better locate the oil to be cleaned up.

As I wrote in the story, I was told by one specialist with the California Department of Fish and Game that one of the major ways being used to locate the oil is to fly over the water with airplanes and helicopters, trying to spot it visually.

One of the chief methods used by oil spill cleanup workers to identify the location of oil slicks is to fly over affected waterways. Here, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific strike team chief Jonathan Grimes flies over the San Francisco Bay on November 12, looking for oil and checking out cleanup work. U.S. Coast Guard

But another expert I talked to for the story said that bunker oil rapidly sinks to at least a foot below the surface of the water and is hard to spot from the air.

This is a partial explanation for why there are still tens of thousands of gallons of this poison floating around in the waters here, killing birds and endangering other wildlife, and why some say it could take 10 years for the area--one of the most important estuaries in North America--to recover.

And this is just one spill, and not a particularly large one when you consider that much, much bigger ones happen all the time.

Of course, the bigger problem to solve is stopping the oil spills in the first place. Why anyone allows single-hull ships to carry oil as cargo in open water, for example, is befuddling to me.

But that's a problem for another day, I suppose.