Taking Oil Spill Testing to the Next Level at ECCC

March 22 is World Water Day, a day set by the UN to focus on the importance of freshwater. Canada is home to 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. We have an important responsibility to protect our waterways from the potentially disastrous impacts of oil spills.

At Environment and Climate Change Canada’s River Road Facility in Ottawa, our scientists conduct research to study what happens to oil during a spill. They analyze the properties and composition of the oil to understand the characteristics of the oil, and then mix different types of oil with water under a range of conditions to study how the oil may interact if spilled. Experiments may introduce products called spill-treating agents that can change the behaviour of the oil to protect sensitive habitat and resources when used properly.

The Spill Simulator

Until now, scientists at River Road could only conduct tests at the bench scale in their oil spill labs. However, a new state-of-the-art oil spill test tank - the Environment and Climate Change Canada Oil Spill Simulator (ECOSSIM) - will soon take that research to the next level. It will allow testing at a larger scale to more closely resemble conditions in the real world while maintaining control over the conditions of the experiment.

“Our lab is already internationally recognized as one of the top oil spill research facilities in the world,” says Patrick Lambert, head of the Field Work and Response Unit. “The new ECOSSIM facility will help us understand the fate and behaviour of oil even better and make sure we have the best information available for responders.”

The ECOSSIM is a temperature-controlled facility at River Road, with a racetrack-style tank that holds 7000 litres of water. The facility can simulate natural conditions including the waves, wind, current and temperature found in oceans, and freshwater, typically found throughout Canada. Scientists can conduct long-term studies for weeks to months with full control of all conditions.

Scientists will use the ECOSSIM to test response options to determine the effectiveness of various oil spill response techniques. Having a better understanding of different types of spills will help scientists with planning and aid with the efficiency of emergency response efforts.

They will also look at the natural processes spilled oil undergoes over time following a spill, collectively known as “weathering”. Weathering modifies the oil properties and its behaviour, which can dramatically affect the ability to clean up the oil, depending on where it goes. Many crude oils emulsify quickly, entraining large volumes of water to create a stable “mousse” that floats on the surface of the water. This will increase the volume of material and make it more persistent and difficult to clean. Understanding this process will further enhance our knowledge and is used to guide the responsible party with planning and necessary response in a real incident.

“ECOSSIM allows us to move from small to large scale simulations to help with preparedness and planning for oil spills. The research will also help us better mitigate the impact to marine ecosystems,” says Lambert.

Collaboration is key

The oil spill research community is a small but collaborative community. ECOSSIM will open its door up to research partners and organizations who wish to collaborate both in Canada and around the world. It aims to ensure we have access to the best scientific information and methods available to respond to oil spills in Canadian waters. These efforts will improve our knowledge of how oil spills behave, how to contain them, clean them up, and minimize their environmental impact.