Mixing high tech into oil spill cleanup efforts

While oil spills happen regularly around the globe, cleanup efforts are still largely the province of industrial equipment and methods. Photos: What it takes to clean up an oil spill

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If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you've been counting on high technology as the best hope for cleanup and recovery from the recent oil spill there, don't get your hopes up.

While major oil spills happen frequently all over the world, high tech really hasn't made much of an impact on the arduous task of cleaning up thousands or millions of gallons of toxic muck from oceans, bays, rivers, and other waterways. Or, for that matter, on the task of rescuing and rehabilitating the wildlife affected by these man-made disasters.

For the most part, spill response is still the province of industrial equipment and methods like skimmers, booms, absorbent materials, and even simply burning off excess oil.

Still, according to some experts, modern technology--including software, GPS devices, and other innovations--are increasingly being deployed as a way to identify where spilled oil has settled or to predict where it might go.

"Technology is being used more and more in the availability of real-time information about ," said Charlie Henry, the scientific support coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Gulf of Mexico region. "That definitely enhances our ability to forecast where the oil is going to go, and how we're going to do cleanup."

For example, Henry explained that in the aftermath of the November 7 Cosco Busan spill--in which 58,000 gallons of bunker oil leaked into the San Francisco Bay after a container ship rammed into the Bay Bridge--crews have been using combinations of GPS, digital photography, and handheld PDAs to document field information they've been gathering on oil accumulation.

And while the hard work of actually getting the oil off beaches and coastal rock formations is being done by heavy machinery and dedicated crews in protective clothing, Henry said the technology being employed helps the agencies involved in cleanup set priorities and work faster.

However, according one expert in the field, the implementation of new technologies when spills occur around the world may well be hampered by an institutional resistance to innovation.

"There's an old guard that (is) running the show," said Gerald Graham, president of World Ocean Consulting, a Victoria, B.C. firm developing spill scenario-planning software. "Some of them don't believe in the value of computer technology (or) information technology. They think it gets in the way."

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