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Oil spills

Oil spills, while thankfully increasingly rare thanks to better maritime safety controls, can be extremely damaging to sensitive marine environments. If oil does not come ashore, it will eventually disperse naturally through the mechanical action of waves and wind, and will be metabolised by marine microorganisms.

However, where environmental resources (such as seabirds or estuaries), human health (directly, or by impacting fisheries) or property are at risk, a range of products and equipment are available to minimise the impact of the oil.

The turbulent nature of UK waters means mechanical recovery is rarely feasible. However wave action does aid treatment products by mixing the product with the oil and encouraging dispersal.

All oil spill treatment products require approval from us. Use in the sea in any area with a depth of less than 20 metres, or within 1 mile of any such area also requires specific permission (unless permission is pre-approved under a standing approval in a contingency plan). Equipment may be used to control, contain or recover oil without approval or permission.


Chemicals that, when applied to oil floating on the surface of the sea, greatly increase the rate of dispersal, and therefore breakdown, of the oil. Dispersants are categorised into:
Type 1: Hydrocarbon solvent-based dispersant applied undiluted
Type 2: Concentrates, diluted 1:10 with seawater before application
Type 3: High efficacy concentrates applied undiluted.
Surface cleaners
Chemicals that, when applied to oil covered hard surfaces, increase the rate of dispersal from the surface, aiding cleaning.
Bioremediation products
Products that enhance the biological degradation of oil. These contain or enhance the growth of naturally occurring, oil degrading bacteria.
Loose sorbents
Usually in the form of powder, granules or beads which absorb oil.
Products used for cleaning grease from machinery of ships and marine structures.


Barriers which sit on the surface of the water and block the movement of floating pollution, protecting certain areas, and making mechanical recovery of pollutants such as oil much more effective. Booms work best in calm conditions where oil and water do not splash over or move under the boom.
Machines that separate liquids or matter from the surface of a water body.
Sorbent mats or pads
Bags containing absorbent products, usually in the form of granules or beads. The bags are porous and allow water and pollution in, without allowing the product to escape.

Further information

Oil and chemical spills leaflet (PDF 503 KB)

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