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Question:What can you do about oil in your ditch following a natural disaster when traditional resources/normal pathways are not available?

by laurel_mire | September 20, 2021 17:11 | #27734


I was recently walking around my neighborhood following Hurricane Ida’s landfall and noticed many ditches had that classic rainbow oil sheen. The oil could be from any number of sources---portable generators, clean up and tree cutting crews, more “normal” sources like cars. With so much infrastructure down (phones, internet, roads blocked, etc) and city departments closed, does anyone have any ideas as to how to address oil in ditches after a natural disaster yourself/without normal pathways available?



10 Comments

Ok. The last time I did this test was quite a few years ago. So there is probably something better, now. The quick test was called "oil and grease". You need to look up the details. But the sample was liquid/liquid extracted with another solvent ( originally trichlorotrifluoroethane and then switched to crappy gasoline) and then run through a filter. The solvent was evaporated in a tared flask and the weight calculated. The current versions show a lot of variations, but you get the idea.The amount of oil and grease could be roughly calculated from this test. The problem is- how could you get a hold of any way to do the test? Maybe the only option would be to pull samples to pull later? But that sounds potentially expensive. Better tests are things like gcms or gc. Maybe the frog gc seen earlier? Any ideas?

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Do you think you want to try to identify the weight of the oil and maybe find the likely sources in order to try to reduce how much is leaking, or do you want to figure out how to soak up / absorb the oil in the ditch ?

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Others are better trained on how to soak up absorb the oil than me. Yes, I had some training. But only on a lab scale. It wouldn't work for the hurricane area. Let me make a contact. Maybe a local uni would help.

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Do you want to test the oil first and then figure out how to clean it up? what are your objectives?

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My purpose is strictly to measure. The cleanup part is not my strong point, so it must be left to someone else. But to go on with the testing. The " oil and grease " test takes water samples and used chemical means to separate the "oil and grease" from it. That part is pretty easy. Getting an idea of how much oil and grease is in there isn't too dificult , either. Separating the individual components is a little more difficult, but that might be a way to identify the source of each bit of oil. It just might not work, though.


Yes, you are correct that a GC could answer your question.. you could send it to a lab, not sure how expensive that would be.


Of you go to a commercial lab...quite expensive. There is one commercial instrument maker that is very good at donating ( or at least dramatically reducing cost ) of instruments to educational facilities. If you can combine low cost instruments with doing testing for info only, you have a chance. Unfortunately, it didn't work. C'est la guerre.


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This note doesn't fully capture the information shared by Randall Auston, Chief of the Spill Response Program, Region 2 (NY City), Division of Environmental Remediation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, but it's worth looking into because you could call them for information on what to do locally: https://publiclab.org/notes/liz/10-07-2015/nys-dec-oil-samples . Mr Austin is especially good at explaining how to visually estimate the weight of an oil by color, as in looking for the deep purples and bronze colors of heavy heating oil vs the light rainbow sheens of gas. Here is a 3 minute video with footage of oil and gas spill that are labelled as Mr Austin talks over them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-97b2ji6_HY

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Thanks to all who have contributed to this question! I didn't know about the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry method but found a good overview here [https://www.azolifesciences.com/article/What-is-Gas-Chromatography-Mass-Spectrometry-(GC-MS).aspx] that helped me. Because the amount of oil was so small and resources limited following the storm, my primary goal was just to clean it up if possible rather than test and source it. I just spoke to Mr Austin from the NY State Dept of Environmental Conservation who gave me some good info and ultimately put my mind at ease. For an amount of oil in water as small as I was seeing, he said nature taking its course is your best option. Trying to collect it to either test or dispose of it myself would be difficult because of its small amount and tendency to simply breakup. Small oil sheens will evaporate, decompose, and otherwise break up on their own pretty quickly. To hurry this along, you can swirl it around in the water yourself if you want to. He said such a small amount of oil is truly a drop in the bucket. He said the only reason to be concerned is if an oil sheen is 1) heavy (purples and bronze as @liz mentioned) and 2) persistent. Mine was neither, and was gone after two days. He also mentioned that if you see an oil sheen on a hard surface (ie not water), you can spread kitty litter over it which will absorb the oil and then can be tossed out with your normal garbage.

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If you are using Gc/ms, there are two common type detectors, quad detectors and ion trap detectors. I'm partial to quads. But I've had salesman tell me how wrong I am for years. If you are using a Gc/ms, it really helps to have a library, rather than to work the spectra down by hand. But either is possible. And it is pretty easy to mess u p the detector after a few messy runs so you have to shut the instrument down, clean it out, pump down, and start over ( usually, at least a day 's time). The technique is very powerful, but can also be very time consuming. And that is beyond the sample prep!

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