By Annie Reisewitz and Sarah Martin
It’s been calculated that a tanker leaking a drop of oil every 10 seconds releases 60 gallons of petroleum oil into the world’s oceans every year.
Water, now more than ever, has become a precious resource in need of protection. We are facing a number of looming water-related crises in the U.S. that are endangering our drinking water and food supplies. Among them, one prominent concern is the quality of our water supply. And, major contributors to the fouling of our water supply are the petroleum-based oils and lubricants used in cars and ocean-going vessels.
Many people are unaware that we use petroleum products every day and in nearly every facet of our lives, from food packaging and building to the somewhat well-known uses in transportation. Many people are aware, however, of the large quantities of plastic being used on a daily basis. Almost every day we hear about the large amounts of plastic that wind up in our oceans because it isn’t recycled or properly disposed of. We also hear about the catastrophic oil spills, such as BP, and how unprepared we are for such a crisis.
But, what we don’t hear about everyday are the other oil spills, the slow, silent oil spills. The drips and drops of used motor oil from our cars that seep into our groundwater and flow into our streams. In fact, these silent oil spills generate 10 million gallons a week globally and we don’t hear about it. Many of these oil spills go unnoticed.
If you’re an average driver in an average car, your crude consumption is in the order of 12 barrels per year. However, if your car is more than ten years old, chances are that figure is closer to 15 barrels annually.
And, many Americans change their own oil, which results in over 37 million gallons of petroleum oil being dumped into U.S. landfills each year from the more than 3 billion used motor oil bottles trashed with oil residue still inside.
In California alone, approximately 150 million gallons of motor oil are purchased every year, generating over 90 million gallons of used oil, the largest volume of hazardous waste generated in the state. Over 70 million gallons are illegally dumped or lost in use each year and end up in our rivers, lakes and ocean, degrading our drinking water supplies and poisoning aquatic life.
Scientists to conservationists to every day activists are working to find solutions to our plastic pollution issues and large oil spill disasters. These slow, but steady “silent oil spills” from petroleum-based motor oil don’t receive as much attention as a pipeline or wellhead spill, yet they generate a much greater amount of oil pollution — 10 million gallons a week globally. And more needs to be done to bring attention to this issue.
The EPA has strengthened regulations on facilities used to store and transport oil, which has resulted in fewer spills since the 1970s. And, as recently as last year, the EPA added environmentally acceptable lubricants to its Bio-Preferred Procurement Program to encourage the use of petroleum alternatives by federal government agencies.
Although they lack the drama to attract widespread media attention, these silent spills kill untold numbers of plants, birds and other aquatic creatures, while degrading the quality of our environment and water. One gallon of used petroleum-based oil can render four acres of land unsuitable for planting for decades. Oil that has migrated through the soil or has reached ground water can take over 100 years to decompose.
Increased public awareness of the problem and everyday actions toward solutions can help minimize motor oil-related water pollution and ultimately, improve water quality. Everyone can be part of the solution, from how we shop (choose recyclable and biodegradable motor oils) to how we drive (a properly maintained vehicle keeps oil off the roadways).
With a nationwide clean-up cost of nearly $3 billion a year, it’s time that we start a larger conversation about how to stop these silent oil spills. Learn more at www.TimeForAnOilChange.org.
Annie Reisewitz is a communications and marketing consultant for environmental and green technology initiatives. She manages the Silent Oil Spills public awareness campaign.
Sarah Martin has worked in environmental communications for the past several years. She works with Annie Reisewitz on the Silent Oil Spills campaign.
Originally published at voices.nationalgeographic.com on May 18, 2015.