Using Fire to Burn Off Oil Spill Ignites Debate

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. One key environmental group, Ocean Advocates, gives it conditional support.

"There aren't a lot of promising areas in oil-spill clean up, but this is an area of some promise," said Faith Yando, editor of the trade publication Oil Spill Intelligence Report.

Fire has been used mostly on oil spills in marshes, although it was used to burn off some 35,000 gallons of oil in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 - resulting in some health complaints by residents of a nearby native village.

The only other Western ocean test was a Canadian-sponsored burn-off near the coast of Newfoundland in 1993. It resulted in limited air pollution and removal of 98 percent of the oil. That compares with a 15 percent removal of oil using conventional tools.

Burning off spills has limitations. It can't be used in inland waters or near populated areas because of the air pollution, or in rough seas or high winds. And it must be done within 72 hours of the spill; after that, oil becomes water-logged.

Finally, burning works only when booms gather the oil into a thick enough concentration. No one has yet demonstrated fire booms, which are very costly, that can withstand the intense heat generated by burning oil.

"We know it's very effective, but today we could not use burning as a tool," said Lin Bernhardt, the project's manager at the Ecology Department. "We don't have the training or the equipment. We need to do the research and testing before we can rely on this in an emergency response to an oil spill."

Backers of the test must win over local residents, who live along the stretch of beaches dotted with RV parks, resorts, and homes, as well as Seattle environmentalists. Public hearings are set for this week. Then they must persuade the federal EPA, which turned down a request for a test burn in Alaska a few years ago. The EPA said it would decide in about a month.

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