Friday, June 04, 2010

The Washington DC Area Oil Spill

For over thirty years I have been active preventing oil spills. These come from do-it-yourself motorist. Our country’s worst environmental accident proves that we do not value prevention. Lessening human error and having back-up plans is critical to our very future.

Years ago there was a Pogo cartoon with a picture of an oil tanker in a backyard, and the caption read, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” At George Washington University in 1977 one of my environmental science text books alerted me to oil polluting my local watershed of Little Falls in Bethesda, Maryland that runs into one of the drinking water reservoirs for the nation’s capital. Since then I have promoted the recovery of do-it-yourself automotive fluids from every possible angle. I began this effort in Montgomery County, Maryland and started DC’s used oil recycling efforts. I even helped build the region’s largest used oil recycling facility and recently worked on updating Virginia’s used oil collection program that I have championed for many years.

I have come to the conclusion that we, in America, can better use and conserve our oil. Each year we use 240 billion gallons of the world’s petroleum supplies. We spend more than $200,000 every minute overseas in our yearly consumption of over 7 billion barrels of oil products. Since the USA constitutes 4% of the world’s population, uses over 25 % of the world’s oil, and produces 22% of climate-altering CO2, we have a tremendous opportunity to best save our oil.

On the front end, there is the one trillion gallons of oilfield waste we inject into deep wells in addition to the 3 billion tons of oil and gas wastes we generate yearly by our oil and gas exploration and production in the USA. On the back end, we waste 400 million gallons of used oil and 500 plus million oil filters are lost yearly in the United States. The current sampling method to evaluate the toxicity of oil, Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) is not the best test since it was designed for municipal landfills. I ask you to simply reflect on the fact that one gallon of used oil improperly disposed can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water or ruin the water supply for 50 people for a year.

Closer to home, in the last four years, Washington DC area motorists disposed of 11.2 million gallons of oil. The improper disposal of used oil, oil filters, and antifreeze by those who perform their own automobile maintenance is a ubiquitous environmental concern. Three to 4.5 million gallons of used oil, 4.7 to 5.9 million oil filters, and approximately one million gallons of antifreeze were "lost" in our environment. Washingtonians who change their own oil and antifreeze account for roughly 45% of those owning passenger cars, and only 15-30% of these materials are believed to be recovered. Even the disposal of discarded oil filters and plastic containers reveals a residual amount of oil whose sheer volume is alarming.

Each year, the United States generates approximately 1.351 billion gallons of used oil; only 57 percent of this used oil is accounted for through recycling. The roughly 45 million people who change their own oil, the so-called do-it-yourselfers (DIYs), are a major source of improperly disposed used oil. It is estimated that between 193 to 400 million gallons of used oil are released into the environment each year in this manner. This is not taking into account the loss of home heating oil from old tanks at peoples’ homes.

There are other harmful household chemicals. Each year according to EPA, Americans generate 1.6 million tons of hazardous household waste (HHW) including, paints, cleaners, batteries, and pesticides that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable and reactive ingredients. Also there are many small businesses and farms generating less than 100 pounds per year of harmful materials that are Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators (CESQG). There is limited information on how many tons of these materials impact our health and natural resources. Presently it is believed that a small percent of this toxic material is recovered, and the cost to do so can be expensive. Improper disposal of this non-point pollution threatens public health and the environment in many ways that must awaken us to this real terror in our homes.

Clearly we can prevent much pollution if we design our products to minimize waste. Today we use close to a billion light-duty oil filters sold in the United States. The average used light-duty oil filter contained on average six to eight ounces of oil, but this amount may be higher since American vehicles are much larger now. One innovative approach would be to promote reusable oil filters that are compatible with engines that use the one-piece sealed spin-on filter. No modifications or tools are required to install these filters on any engine that uses a spin-on filter, and they allow for the recovery of all used motor oil. The assembly housing is reused; only the paper element is replaced, and this can be easily recycled or burned for energy. Widespread adoption of these reusable filter systems would virtually eliminate used oil being trapped in filters and prevent steel filters entering landfills. If produced in volume, this filter could be manufactured for under a dollar. At the point of final sale, the filter would cost somewhat less than the current spin-on filter. Reusable filters were popular up to the early 1960s and are still widely used in the racing industry.

As a huge plume of oil now threatens both the gulf and possibly our East Coast can we make wiser use of our rapidly depleting non-renewable petroleum supplies? We, Americans, are oil addicts and it is time we go into a recovery program. We must make our "oil can" mightier than the sword and as a nation embrace thrifty management of our black gold.