Oil spill preparedness at the Panama Canal



Jorge Quijano, Maritime Operations Director & Urho Gonzal, Chemist and Hazmat Specialist, Emergency and Contingency Management Division, Panama Canal Authority, Panama


On January 1, 2005, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) implemented an oil spill preparedness programme to help plan for and mitigate the effect of oil spills. Known as the Panama Canal Shipboard Oil Pollution Emergency Plan (PCSOPEP), its goal is to provide for the expeditious and effective response to an oil spill and reduce its possible impact to the Canal and local environment. All vessels transiting the Panama Canal with an oil capacity (as cargo and/or fuel) of 400 metric tonnes or more are required to submit a PCSOPEP at least 96 hours prior to arriving in Canal waters.

Each PCSOPEP is developed by organisations or individuals experienced in pollution prevention and response. The PCSOPEP is submitted via e-mail or through regular postal mail and includes the following information, as a minimum:

• Oil pollution prevention measures for Panama Canal waters;
• Spill notification procedures in a prioritised sequence;
• Spill response procedures;
• Crew training programme for the reaction to shipboard and shore spill incidents;
• Record of PCSOPEP notification exercises; and
• Identification of the authorised person and telephone and facsimile numbers where they can be reached on a 24-hour basis.

The process to create and implement the PCSOPEP was broadly discussed with customers since 2003 to ensure sound and opportune implementation. The plan initially proposed incorporation of third-party Oil Spill Removal Organisations (OSROs). However, based on comments by international shipping organisations, modifications were made that enriched the content and final strategy, which ultimately helped meet the goal of protecting public health, the environment, transiting vessels and Canal infrastructure from oil spills. As a result, the ACP assumed the role of serving as the sole OSRO in Panama Canal waters. The ACP administers valuable environmental resources that require programmes like the PCSOPEP to keep operations in harmony with human and environmental health. The management of emergencies at the ACP follows the organisation’s contingency plan, which has been published on the ACP’s intranet since 2000. The site’s interactive format facilitates maintenance, training, and fast-searching capabilities. This broad emergency contingency plan covers all types of hazards and can be applied to address specific types of emergencies, as necessary. In the case of oil spills, the PCSOPEP contributes to this emergency plan by tackling response preparedness in a tiered structure.

Other programmes at the ACP deal with prevention and other risk management issues. The contingency plan created a new system at the ACP in which different elements interact to minimise the consequences of emergencies. The pursuit of improvements follows a systematic approach, in which the evaluation of each part of the contingency plan, such as policies, resources or the response management structure leads to the identification of areas that require enhancement. Many times, this process has required corporate cultural changes and substantial investments in equipment, technology and training.

The ACP is committed to providing excellent customer service and to continuing to fulfil its responsibilities to the environment through its strategic plans and certifications, such as ISO 9001 (certification for quality management) and ISO 14001 (certification for a well-rounded, successful environmental management system). Vessels at the Canal continue to meet tight transit schedules and emergencies can happen, so the ACP places priority on protecting the valuable natural resources that surround the waterway, such as national parks of natural and cultural significance, fresh water reservoirs, and tourism sites. Without proper preparedness, any part of the economic cluster of the Canal can be adversely affected by an emergency. In keeping the quality and environmental policies of the organisation and for the benefit of all, the continuous improvement of the ACP’s emergency preparedness and measures to protect those valuable resources is what ultimately led to the PCSOPEP project.

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