The really big oil spill

The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico is huge and pictures are dramatic, but it's not yet as big as the 1991 Persian Gulf spill that dumped about 460 million gallons of oil into the ocean, to set the record for the all-time biggest oil spill.

"Saddam Hussein's mess" was five times as big as Deepwater Horizon. Nonetheless, every day that oil gushes out of that hole 5,000 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon spill is getting bigger and it already has the dubious distinction of being the largest oil spill of all time in the Gulf of Mexico and in all U.S. waters.

Oil spills are nothing new. When Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into what is now Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1500s, he reported that he saw oil bubbling from a natural seep. Cabrillo wrote that the Chumash Indians skimmed up the oil and used it to waterproof their boats.

The irony is that in 1969, 400 years later, on January 29, 1969, six miles offshore a Union Oil Company platform drilling 3,500 feet down had a blowout, sending 200,000 gallons of crude to the surface, creating a slick that covered 800 square miles and 35 miles of coastline.

That spill is credited as having ignited the passion that resulted in the first Earth Day in 1970, turning what Stewart Udall once called "The Quiet Crisis" into an international protest on behalf of the earth.

Big oil spills are pretty dramatic, but to put things in perspective, if we look at an average year, the big spills are actually a fraction of the oil that goes into the oceans.

Oil spills constantly happen all around the world. The big ones just happen to get all the news. According to the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, spills of 1,000 gallons or more represent only 4 percent of all the oil that ends up in our waterways every year.

And what about the other 96 percent of the oil that gets into waterways? The Smithsonian Institution reports that the biggest source of oil that gets into our waterways comes not from boats or offshore drilling rigs, but from runoff from land, streets, and gutters — about half of all the oil that gets in our waterways.

This is an amount equivalent to the combined oil that comes from ships cleaning their bilges, natural seeps, spills from boats, burning, and from offshore drilling, which in a normal year is less than 2 percent of all oil that gets into water.

You see oil on the pavement in parking lots, maybe in your driveway. Realize that every time that it rains, some of that oil is swept away in runoff water. Annual runoff from a city of five million people could be as much as a spill from a big tanker, like when the Exxon Valdez broke up in Prince William Sound in 1989.

Runoff from streets contaminates rivers, lakes and estuaries, affecting wildlife and threatening human health. It not only gets in waterways, but it can enter groundwater, poisoning wells. Yes, some runoff is captured and treated by sewage treatment plants, if that city combines storm and sanitary waste waters and puts them all through treatment plants. But not all storm runoff goes to sewage treatment plants.

The average car holds over five quarts of oil. More than half of all Americans change their own oil, but only about one-third of the used oil from do-it-yourself oil changes is collected and recycled. Yes, oil can be recycled. Used oil from your car can be used to make lubricating oil and/or used in power generation. And, it is illegal to dump oil down the drain.

Most service stations, repair facilities, and quick lubes will accept used oil without charge. Like many states, California has oil recycling stations located around the state.

In fact, certified California Used Oil Collection Centers will take used motor oil and pay you 40¢ a gallon, so long as it is not mixed with antifreeze, or other fluids.

The purpose of this article is not to shift blame or responsibility for what is going on the Gulf of Mexico. Rather, it is to remind you that each one of us can help make our waterways cleaner by taking responsibility for where used oil goes.

And, if you happen to see someone dumping oil down a drain or into a waterway, report them. Every state has a toll-free hotline to report polluters and poachers. If your call ends up in an arrest and conviction, you can be given a reward up to $1,000.

If you are out on the ocean, and are not sure just what state to call, from British Columbia to the California border and you see a spill or someone dumping oil, call theThe Pacific Oil Spill Prevention Education Team, POSPET, toll-free number – 1-800-OILS-911.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.