Keeping ports free of oil pollution – the need for a plan to prevent and respond



Roger Mabbott, Director, UK Spill Association


An oil spill at sea will always get headlines, if it is big enough it will be a global news story, but today, spills at sea have declined to a low level, and the threat is now from smaller, but sometimes more toxic oil spills in port environments. In the period 1974 to 2007, ITOPF figures show 84 per cent of all spills were under seven tonnes, and 58 per cent of those spills occurred in ports, not as accidents but during operations.

So what is being done to reduce the risk?

With one of the longest coastlines in Europe and an economy that relies on shipping for 95 per cent of its visible trade, the UK is at particular risk from marine oil pollution. To illustrate the scope of incidents around the UK, and incidents are fortunately few and far between, recently in Felixstowe, just 200 litres leaked from a containership – the local plan went into action.

Specialist teams of spill responders were sent to contain a slick early on Thursday, and the oil was largely dispersed by Thursday afternoon. The teams used booms to contain the oil and the majority was recovered quite quickly, using scoops and skimmers. The impact of the spill, although small, was wide ranging.

The Maersk Brisbane was delayed sailing and a couple of vessels were delayed berthing, with other disruption to port operations. Felixstowe is not only a major industrial port, but it is within the environs of the Stour and Orwell estuaries, where thousands of wading birds migrate to in the winter, and if the spill is not dealt with quickly it could put these birds at risk.

MSC Napoli

Fortunately, over the last 15 years, the oil spills within UK ports and coastal areas have all been minor, usually under seven tonnes – the most widely known in 2007 off the South coast, where the containership MSC Napoli ran aground carrying 3,780 tonnes of heavy fuel oil bunkers. During the vessel’s passage into Lyme Bay,
it was beached. Shortly after, the salvage operation commenced, a small amount of bunkers were lost, estimated to be less than one per cent of the total.

Accredited spill contractors, D V Howells Ltd., members of the UK Spill Association, were brought in by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency to deal with both marine pollution from the bunker oil spill, and also contaminated containers where both oil and HNS risk occurred.

Efforts were made to contain the discharges, with booms deployed around the ship. Booms were also deployed in the Rivers Brit and Axe to help prevent oil entering. These resources were provided from the national MCA stockpiles. Some of the oil was dispersed using dispersants applied by surface ships. Throughout the removal of the bunkers by the salvors, the Agency remained on a high state of alert and was assisted by the French authorities with the provision of two mechanical oil recovery ships. The bulk of the bunkers were successfully removed by the end of March, two months after the grounding.

Sea Empress

At the other end of the scale for spills in port environments, Milford Haven Port Authority was fined £4 million for the huge spill from the Sea Empress in 1996, which polluted long stretches of the environmentally sensitive south-west coast of Wales and caused millions of pounds of damage to the region’s tourism and fishing industries. The clean-up operation cost at least £60 million.

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