New government 'oil in the sea' study provides troubling outlook, but no solutions

June 7, 2002
A new study showing that most of the oil in North American oceans from human activities comes from land-based runoff has reignited concerns over the nation's response to water contamination.

Scottsdale, AZ, June 7, 2002 -- A new study showing that most of the oil in North American oceans from human activities comes from land-based runoff has reignited concerns over the nation's response to water contamination.

One of the nation's most renowned oil spill experts responded to the study with frustration, saying that government and corporate leaders at all levels, as well as consumers, must analyze their contributions to non-point source pollution and take steps to minimize them.

"We simply have to take more responsibility as a nation and as citizens for the direct impact we have on water pollution, which is becoming more and more severe," said John Robinson, who served as the chief governmental scientist for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, as well as the oil fires and spills in Kuwait during and following the Persian Gulf War.

"Over 10 years ago we spent billions of dollars to clean up the Exxon Valdez while a much more insidious problem was literally occurring beneath our feet." The "Oil in the Sea" study, conducted by the National Academies' National Research Council, also reported that nearly 70% of the oil discharged into the oceans from human sources comes from the day-to-day consumption of petroleum, while only 8% is caused by oil spills.

Land runoff and recreational boating are the biggest culprits in the pollution caused by petroleum use, the report said. "A great deal of water contamination is caused by hydrocarbons and other chemicals that run off roadways or industrial and construction sites and flow through stormwater drains that empty directly into oceans, rivers and other waterways," Robinson added.

"We would never think of pouring a cup of motor oil into our bath water. However, we allow thousands of gallons of pollutants to flow untreated into our waterways each and every day."

For the last five years, Robinson has been a technical advisor to AbTech Industries, which developed its Smart Sponge® technology to help mitigate the problem by capturing and absorbing oil, hydrocarbons, trash, sediments and other pollutants from stormwater run-off before the water flows into major surface water sources.

"I'm lending my expertise to the private sector to help support the most advanced solutions for clean water," said Robinson, who also works as a consultant in Santa Barbara. "I encourage every city and company that might contribute to surface water pollution to investigate the options for eliminating it."

While Robinson is associated with one environmental solutions company, he said it's important for government, corporate officials and environmental organizations to become educated about all of the options for stormwater treatment.

This is particularly important since 5,000 municipalities and 110,000 construction sites in the U.S. must comply by March 2003 with the Federal Clean Water Act Phase II Regulation, designed to reduce stormwater runoff and improve non-point source water pollution. (A complete list of Best Management Practices and companies providing products and services is available on the EPA's website.)

"Following the Exxon Valdez the Coast Guard and industry took a number of actions that were largely successful in eliminating large tanker spills," Robinson said. "It's time for EPA and the nation's municipalities to show similar interest in controlling land-based runoff." Robinson hopes the report will raise awareness about the issue among consumers as well since individuals also contribute to water contamination.

"We're a nation of consumers," Robinson said. "We contribute to non-point source pollution with our cars and boats one drop of oil at a time."

"There are effective, immediate solutions to this problem, but there also has to be a commitment to invest in those solutions," Robinson said. "With government officials, business leaders, consumers and environmental organizations all taking a proactive role, we can start to reverse the environmental and ecological damage we've caused."

The full Oil in the Sea report is available by contacting the National Academy Press at 202-334-3313 or on the Internet at

For information about the EPA's Best Management Practices for limiting non-point source pollution from stormwater run-off, visit

AbTech Industries, Inc., based in Scottsdale, Arizona, is an emerging intellectual property-based firm that provides customized clean water solutions to meet specific community and industry needs. To combat nonpoint source pollution, AbTech developed the Smart Sponge a patented technology that effectively removes pollutants from stormwater.

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