I arrived at Gaviota Beach today with about 70 other volunteers for an afternoon beach clean-up in the wake of the Refugio oil spill. After receiving safety instructions from a California Fish and Game warden, we suited up in personal protective equipment, called PPE. The PPEs protect skin and clothing from any possible oil exposure. First, I donned a white, lightweight hazmat suit that zipped up the front. Next, I put on black rubber boots over my old tennis shoes, ensuring the suit pant legs went over the boots. The next layer of protection was blue surgical gloves, which were then covered by very thick black gloves. Lastly sunglasses are required for eye protection. Our volunteer group was provided with rakes and scoopers to pick up tar that had washed ashore, and large plastic bags to dispose of oiled material. Under overcast skies, our group set out on a mission.
After trying to separate flecks of oil from sand, I can say first hand that spilled oil is impossible to clean-up! The experience was tedious as I balanced the need to remove oil while not causing more damage and disturbance to the ecosystem by removing sand, rocks, shells, and kelp along with the oil. In front of me was low tide and behind me was hard and sorbent boom deployed at the top of the beach to prevent any oil from making its way above the beach line. As the afternoon progressed, the sun began to peak through the clouds and my hands and feet began to sweat under the non-breathable PPE. After combing the designated stretch of beach we called it a day and headed back to a tarp at the top of the beach to decontaminate. The decontamination process is strategic in itself. First I removed the thick, awkward black gloves. Next I removed the hazmat suit, folding it inside out, and the black booties were cut away from my shoes. As I removed the blue surgical gloves, sweat poured from my hands. All of the PPEs are now considered hazardous waste and would be disposed of as such.
The take home message from today’s experience is that more safety measures and precautions must be put in place to prevent oil spills from happening in the first place. It is easier and less costly to prevent an oil spill than it is to try to clean one up. After all, spilled oil can never completely be removed from the environment.