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Oil spill fingerprinting in Canadian waters


Shelley Steeves, reporter
December 12, 2011 — A chemist in New Brunswick is using science to help knab criminals polluting our Canadian waters.


A bird covered in oil following a spill (Courtesy: Environment Canada)
A bird covered in oil following a spill (Courtesy: Environment Canada)

Watching Art Cook work in his lab feels like a scene out of CSI. He's using science to help knab criminals polluting our Canadian waters.

“There are still these re-occurring incidents that has kept our lab engaged over the last few years,” he says.

Most oil spills that happen today are a result of bilge dumping. That's when a vessel, like a cargo ship, will dump it's dirty engine oil at sea so they don't have to pay to get rid of it when they get to port.

The problem is, it's been very hard to pinpoint which ship the oil came from. That's because the east coast boasts the busiest shipping lanes in North America, so there are plenty of suspects out there. But here is his lab, Cook has found a way to weed out the culprit.

It's called chemical fingerprinting. Cook compares oil samples taken from dead marine birds with oil found on suspect ships.

“We have instrumentation here in the laboratory that allows us to look at unique characteristics of each individual oil,” he explains.

Then he can identify each oil's unique chemical fingerprint. Find a match and he's found his felon whose victims are the innocent and helpless.

Chemist Art Cook analyzes an oil sample
Chemist Art Cook analyzes an oil sample

One spot of oil - the size of a quarter - can kill a marine bird.

“These birds are basically water proof and an oil will allow the water to come in contact with their skin and they are in such a hard environment within the Nor Atlantic,” Cook says.

As a result, they quickly die of hypothermia.

Chemical finger printing has already helped authorities track down and prosecute shipping companies dumping oil at sea, holding the guilty accountable and getting at least some kind of justice for their innocent victims.

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