Planning, Not Technology, Is Key To Spill Avoidance

Friday, September 03, 1999
Good planning, and not super high technology is the key to fighting tanker oil spills, Ian White, managing director of London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. said last week. "There are technological limitations as to what you can do (to control oil spills). Once the oil gets out, then you have a problem." He said in a speech most spills from tankers occurred during routine operations such as loading, discharging and bunkering. But bigger spills involving more than 700 tons have resulted from collisions and groundings, he said. "You can use booms and skimmers to concentrate the oil, pick it up and remove it, but it tends to be quite inefficient, especially if the weather is not good," White said. The other approach is to use chemical dispersants to speed up the process, whereby the oil would be diluted and broken down. "But even if you use both techniques, if the wind and the currents are towards shore, some oil will come ashore." White said the speed and relative importance of the processes depends on factors such as the quantity and type of oil, the prevailing weather and sea conditions, and whether or not the oil remains at sea or was washed ashore. While bunker spills tend, on average, to be relatively small they could still cause great problems, White said. "The main issue in dealing with oil spills is not how much equipment you've got, but whether you've got a good contingency plan and good organization and management in the response," White said. "It's not really a high-tech business. Oil is just a lot of mucky stuff in the wrong place and people try to make it sound far too scientific and technical." The effectiveness of spill management could also have major implications for overall costs of oil spill clean-up operations. In one oil spill incident where an estimated 300,000 liters of oil leaked into Sydney Harbor early in August, insurers of the ship paid the Sydney Ports Corporation an $5.2 million bond to cover the cost of the clean-up and any possible fines. "Generally speaking, human error is a very large cause of most (tanker) accidents unfortunately. Not just in this region, but everywhere," White said. "Even if you have the technology, sometimes people make rather basic mistakes."

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