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DIY Oil Testing Advocacy

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IV. Data and Action: Community Oil Testing and Advocacy

Part of the Public Lab approach is to build collaborations with people and community groups directly facing environmental problems. During the Homebrew Sensing project we did outreach to both online and offline groups. The section below will explain some of our methods, results and further observations on the outreach strategies we employed. Taking this project into the future, we’ve developed a workshop series that outlines what it looks like to work with a group through the oil testing process.

Why is an accessible, DIY oil testing kit necessary?

Empowering the public to explore and evaluate their own environments is essential, being beneficial to communities and to environmental stewardship. When leaks, spills, and other environmentally hazardous situations occur, it is often community members who discover the problem first, and the more information they can obtain about the situation, the more prompt and appropriate the response can be.

With low-cost, open-source, do-it-yourself (DIY) techniques, communities can be more informed first-responders, and also more informed and powerful advocates for their own environment. Communities doing DIY oil testing can also contribute to official testing and evaluation by serving as a screening or indicator step prior to more costly officially-recognized analyses, or by serving to fill in existing gaps in data, such as testing with denser geographic coverage. Even local agencies who officially respond to reports of oil pollution could utilize low-cost tests to use in the field as a screening method. For personal use, DIY oil testing kits can provide useful information at a fraction of the cost of third-party laboratory testing for home analyses, such as discerning potential sources of leaked or spilled oil in a yard or basement or evidence of any leaking oil tank. Thus, for personal autonomy, community stakeholdership, rapid environmental response, and in support of governmental monitoring, access to tools such as Public Lab’s DIY spectrometer and oil testing kit is useful, and even necessary.


Balloon map of oiled shores in Wilkinson Bay, Louisiana), after the BP Oil Spill.

What are some specific situations where a DIY Oil Testing Kit are useful?

Conceptual understanding of the utility of low-cost DIY tools, and of spectroscopy as a means to elucidate information about oil, is important. Perhaps equally important is learning about real, specific examples of where and how this kit could be applied.

Discerning likely source of oil sheen near industrial landfill

[] Image from Louisiana Environmental Action Network

The community in Oakville, Louisiana has dealt with the nearby Industrial Pipe Landfill for the past 30 years, including several legal engagements regarding the improper zoning of the landfill, illegal reporting omissions of fires in the landfill, and persistent activities threatening the health of the community. The Industrial Pipe Landfill accepts a variety of wastes, including building and construction materials and oily wastes from washing drilling equipment. The landfill is unlined, extends below the water table, and is in a floodplain, increasing the likelihood that contaminants from the landfill will be mobilized into the adjacent Oakville township and wetlands.

Community members have observed visible oil sheens in ditches and low-lying areas near the landfill, and are concerned that it is oil waste leaching from the landfill. If the oil testing kit can adequately distinguish between crude oil waste residue and roadway runoff motor oil or gasoline, Oakville community members could have more evidence to support their appeals for closure of the landfill. For more information about the Oakville and Industrial Pipe environmental justice concerns, please see this review by a clinical instructor at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, this court case, a 2014 post-trial brief, a newspaper article, and a Public Lab research note by Scott Eustis, among other resources available online.


Tar balls at Grand Isle, Louisiana; photo by @eustatic

Understanding oil pollution on coastal beach in area with oil production and transport

Grand Isle, Louisiana is a coastal beach south of New Orleans, an important landing spot for thousands of migratory birds, the seafood industry, and tourism. It is also the onshore neighbor to oil exploration and production wells, and ship patterns for crude and refined oil transport. The BP Oil Spill in 2010 devastated Grand Isle, and wildlife and their dependent economies continue to suffer (see this article). Grand Isle is also impacted by persistent spills and leaks from the offshore oil drilling, with tarballs washing ashore regularly. In order to assess the continued impact of the BP Oil Spill and that of ongoing impacts of oil waste from transport spill and leaks, Grand Isle community members and workers could use a low-cost DIY device to discern different types of oils.

While the impacts of weathering on oil fluorescence spectra have not yet been determined, it is plausible that the resultant spectra of tar balls from the 2010 BP Oil Spill could be distinguished from more recent refined oil leaks from barges. While the Public Lab Oil Testing Kit cannot accomplish definitive forensic analysis (such as could be possible with a series of biomarker analyses using professional-grade equipment, discussed in the Questions section of this document), the oil testing kit screening level capability to distinguish crude oil from fuel could warrant further diagnostic investigations and aid Grand Isle workers in advocating for BP to continue cleanup and community reparations. For more information on the oil issues facing Grand Isle, please see this article, this short piece, and this Public Lab research note, among other online resources.

Advocating against new drilling by demonstrating effects of past drilling

Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) of shale rocks has increased exponentially in the United States in the past decade, and there is interest in fracking the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale beneath the Southern Hills Aquifer. Opponents of the proposed fracking, particularly in St Tammany Parish, are concerned with the myriad environmental health consequences of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil that have been witnessed in Pennsylvania and Texas among other shale-rich lands, and also the lasting impacts of drilling wells.

Louisiana DEQ has a poor record of managing decommissioned wells (see the Legislative Auditor report of 2013:$FILE/000010BC.pdf), and as of 2013 there were more than 2800 orphaned wells in Louisiana, many of them posing environmental hazards. Even old oilfield and drill sites that were ostensibly remediated have been purported to have not been remediated fully. In Tangipahoa Parish, old oilfields and drill pits are now being used as offroading ATV courses, which could reveal contaminated soils through the disturbances caused by racing ATVs. Community members have observed oily dirt at the ATV courses and other old oilfields. To assess the ongoing impacts of the decommissioned and remediated oilfields versus the current impacts of ATV activity would be valuable information in advocating against new drilling. Opponents to the proposed new drilling into the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale could utilize the DIY oil testing kit to distinguish crude oilfield waste from ATV motor oil.

The highly visual fluorescence spectra data obtained using the Public Lab Oil Testing Kit could be persuasive in discussing concerns over the lasting impact of oil drilling with other nearby Parishes that are allowing fracking into the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, such as Tangipahoa Parish. This article highlights the differences in opinion between St Tammany and Tangipahoa Parish residents, which all live above the same shale play and the same groundwater aquifer.

Perhaps highly visual data, from a tool that can be used to analyze a lot of samples at a very low cost, would be an avenue to create conversation between the communities, and potential broaden support for anti-fracking advocates. St Tammany recently won a court-ordered permit vacate disallowing exploratory drilling in St Tammany (see more here, but there could be a difficult battle against hydraulic fracturing in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale.

Louisiana and Mississippi have regulations that are more favorable to oil and gas companies than most anywhere else in the United States, including extremely low taxes in Mississippi, Mississippi’s “forced pooling” if the company has obtained a lease for at least a third of the mineral rights in the proposed drilling area, and the authority of the Louisiana state government to override Parish plans for pertinent issues such as waste water disposal (see this article for more details). Though a difficult endeavor, demonstrating evidence of prolonged and persistent contamination from past oil operations in the Parishes residing above the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale may bolster the community voice in their efforts to protect their land and aquifer.

Discovering leaking oil tanker trains


Suspected oil spill on train tracks by Mississippi River; photo by @marlokeno

Transporting oil by rail has increased exponentially in the last few years as the U.S. and Canada have increased their oil export industry. Pipelines have traditionally been the primary way to transport crude oil to refineries along the coasts, but are prone to leaks and ruptures, causing large-scale oil pollution (see the extensive list of pipeline spills and accidents here, and the current pipeline infrastructure is at capacity transporting crude oil from the Alberta oil sands into or through the United States. Crude oil producers have increased the use of train cars to transport product, with crude-carrying rail traffic increasing by 5100% from 2008 to 2014, and rail constituted approximately 11% of overall crude oil transport in 2014 (information found here).

There have been several examples of train derailments resulting in large explosions from the highly flammable oil cargo (listed here), but even beyond those dangerous events, oil transport by rail can also damage the environment in less sensational, more persistent ways. For example, oil tanker cars often leak. According to Holland & Knight, approximately 92,000 tanker cars are used to transport crude oil, but only 14,000 of those cars have been built to the latest safety requirements (see presentation here. The DOT-111 cars that are used for this style of transport are known to puncture easily, making the potential for oil leakage quite high.


Suspected oil residue on train tracks by Mississippi River; photo by @marlokeno

As trains travel through remote areas, leaking oil cars may go unnoticed by the public, but can pose a significant risk to wildlife and the environment. As leaking trains roll through towns, the public becomes susceptible as well. A Public Lab community member found evidence of a leaking oil train car in Minnesota, with a visible orange streak running along the tracks for miles (see this research note photo-documenting the observation). As this train ran along the shore of the Mississippi River and above minor trout streams, leaked oil was able to spill into waterways. In rural stretches of this train track, spilled oil in water may go unnoticed for long periods of time.

DIY oil testing could be useful in this situation for multiple reasons. First, persons encountering the oil need to know what safety implications there are, and different grades of oil have different toxic components. Second, the density and flammability differences between different grades of oil impacts their cleanup, and where you might look for oil contamination in water bodies (emulsions, surface oil, or on the sediment). Discerning what grade of oil leaked out of a train could help protect people and expedite environmental remediation.

Demonstrating oilfield effects on wildlife


Figure Copyright 2006, American Petroleum Institute in "Protecting Livestock: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Livestock Exposure to Crude Oil in Oilfield Operations"

Oil and gas exploration and production sites can cause human and animal exposure to a variety of chemicals associated with those activities, and oilfields in particular can present multiple pathways of exposure. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has written informational brochures around this topic, including a 2006 publication, “Protecting Livestock: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Livestock Exposure to Crude Oil in Oilfield Operations,” in which their Figure 2 (reprinted above), shows various animal exposure pathways, including direct ingestion of contaminated soil or chronic drinking of contaminated streams, among others. In certain states, oilfield produced water even can be discharged legally into surface waters that are used by livestock and wildlife. A 2002 study in Wyoming found that produced water discharges often became ephemeral streams or pools in the arid Wyoming environment, and birds would mistake oilfield waste pits or discharges for real wetland habitat (see references in the linked report).

When wildlife are exposed directly to oil, they may have remnants on their bodies (e.g. if a cow rolls in contaminated oily dirt, or a bird lands in an oil pit and gets oiled feather), which could potentially be sampled to provide evidence of their exposure. Additionally, waterfowl who reproduce near oilfields may transfer oil onto their eggs, or nest eggs in oil-containing materials, so eggshells could be analyzed for the presence of oil compounds. Animals that have ingested oil waste may have components of oil, such as PAHs, in their systems, and with significant sample preparation, it may be possible to identify oil components in animal tissues or secretions using methods such as fluorescence.

Demonstrating wildlife and other animal exposure to oil pollution, particularly from oilfields, could prompt more simple, responsible behavior by oilfield operators, such as putting netting up over oilfield pits and wastewater pits. This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bulletin says that netting is one of the most effective deterrents to keep wildlife out of dangerous oil pits, but also emphasize that closed operations are safer.

Assessing spilled or leaked oils for home safety

In many northern states in the U.S., using heating oil is the most common way people heat their homes. Improper maintenance or storage of the oil tanks can also lead to some of the most common environmental accidents. In this 2010 report from Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the state reports that 28% of the oil spills it responded to in the past year were from home heating oil. Heating oil leaks can be extremely dangerous, as it can poison soils where children play and gardens grow, in addition to off-gassing volatile oil components.

If a person suspects an oil leak, they could use DIY fluorescence spectroscopy as a quick screening method to evaluate whether or not there is likely to be oil present. DIY spectroscopy could also be useful in real estate transactions as a screening method. Since cleanup of leaking heating oil tanks or pipes can cost up to $100,000, a site assessment is often important in real estate transactions for properties containing oil tanks. As a quick screening tool for home buyers who suspect oil, a DIY oil fluorescence test were able to indicate a likely match between a suspected oil leak and a reference heating oil, home buyers could step away from the transaction prior to the financial and time investment of hiring an official site assessment with laboratory analyses. In the case of home heating oil, DIY oil testing could save people time, money, and potential exposure if used as a screening method.

How can fluorescence spectra be useful in advocacy around oil pollution?

Our purpose in developing a do-it-yourself fluorescence spectrometry method is to make the collection of evidence more accessible to those without access to lab testing, and for data from such DIY tests to support community goals, be they regulatory, legal, or other. Just as the visual nature of aerial photos can make them clear and compelling, fluorescence data can support your campaign in a highly visual format, in a way that tables of data alone cannot. A well-presented comparison of rigorously collected and analyzed spectra can show similarities and differences between a collected sample, a known pollutant, or even a suspected false positive result. Using persuasive scientific data as part of a campaign can strengthen your position by communicating in a language which many community groups have been unable to make use of due to the lack of accessible equipment, knowledge and resources. Data presented in a visual format, as is standard in fluorescence spectrometry, can communicate the scientific rigor in an approachable and interpretable for people in a variety of sectors, communicating effectively across disciplines and stakeholder status.


Scott Eustis (@eustatic) collecting pollutant samples in Oakville, Louisiana