06 June 2010

Oil spill: Can it happen again?

Can another spill happen again? Will we be ready for a big one?
A large Liquified Natural Gas ship passing the Chek Jawa beacon,
taken from the Chek Jawa boardwalk on 22 May.

I've finally got a breather from field trips, and thought I should do a round-up of the spread of the oil slick and what was done to clean it up. Also how did the spill affect people and how the spill may affect our marine life.

The most recent account in Jan 10 lists Singapore as the fourth busiest shipping area in the world.
From Wired Science 25 Jan 10;

The Straits of Singapore is narrow and already highly congested. It takes SEVEN HOURS for a ship to pass through this stretch. A study of the situation last year declared that "The Strait of Singapore can take a 75% increase in shipping traffic without needing any changes to its infrastructure or operations."
From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Last year, the shipping situation in the narrow Straits is was compounded by the flotilla of "container ships languishing off the Singapore coast" due to the financial crisis, as reported in May 09 by Passport of the Foreign Policy blog.
In fact, the sheer number of humungous ships parked near and passing through Singapore is a shipping disaster waiting to happen since last year. The shipping slow down in late 2008 also led to more ships being parked in and near Singapore.

Oil spills can happen without shipping accidents

Malaysian reports about the recent oil spill also highlighted that the Tanjung Pengerang area was notorious for taking the brunt of illegal oil dumping activities. The Johor Department of Enviroment also expressed concern "Never have I seen so many vessels docking in international waters off our coastline. At night, they discard waste into the water. There have been cases of ship wastes and illegal dumping here over the last 15 years”

In Jun 05, Pengerang was "hit by a giant oil slick believed to be the region's worst environmental disaster in recent years". Reports said the oil slick was 5km long (for comparison, the recent oil slick was reported to be about 4 sq km). The oil slick left Johor beaches covered with tar balls and harbours full of black, oily water. The oil slick also polluted the river in Sungai Rengit. The captain of the vessel responsible for an oil slick off the Johor coast jumped onto a lifeboat and escaped to Batam, Indonesia, when police moved in. Environment officials said the oil was a by-product of cleaning the cargo vessel, called "slop oil". It is believed that the slop oil could have been deliberately discharged to cut the cost of transporting it to a processing plant.

Reports on this incident also referred to another incident in Aug 03, when at least 4km of the Tanjung Piai coastline in Pontian were affected by dumped sludge.

Can we deal with the next accident?
What have we learnt from this recent oil spill?

The current oil spill was used to try out new ways to deal with spills:

NEA said on 31 May that it also used the opportunity to conduct a trial last on a new technology for oil contamination clean-up at a jetty along East Coast beach. Named 'Eco-Blue - Industrial Blend', the plant-derived, water-based, readily biodegradeable solution serves as a clean-up and mitigation agent for use on a wide range of hydrocarbon products.

While on 28 May MPA experimented with imbiber beads which are usually used by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) to clean up chemical spills on land. Imbiber beads are spherical plastic particles that absorb organic liquids. MPA said results have been encouraging and with support from SCDF, it is deploying more imbiber beads to supplement other efforts.

But do we need to do more to prepare for the next one?

In What if the oil spill here was really big? Richard Hartung Today Online 1 Jun 10, it was highlighted that while there's a "Standard Operating Procedure for Joint Oil Spill Combat in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore," intended to coordinate actions to control spills, this does not seem to prepare for a large spill. ChemSpill exercises, designed to test preparedness for dealing with oil spills, used a scenario in 2007 where "more than 100 tonnes of chemicals were spilled into the sea" and another scenario in a morning-long exercise in 2009 tested "a collision between an oil tanker and a chemical tanker". While the preparations are good, there's little evidence of capabilities to deal with spills larger than 30,000 tonnes. It was noted that the 1997 Evoikas accident, 28,000 tonnes was spilled off southern Singapor. The Evoikas was reportedly carrying 62,000 tonnes. Meanwhile, the SPC refinery can handle ships up to 105,000 tonnes.

Malaysian Environment Minister admitted on 2 Jun there were problems with the standard operating procedures of the agencies involved in the monitoring and clean-up efforts. He mentioned that Malaysian authorities had difficulty obtaining permission to use Singapore's air space to conduct surveillance of the oil spill.

Meanwhile the Johor Malaysian Nature Society was quoted in This is a test case for Malaysia, says society from The Star 1 Jun 10 as saying that contingency plans to contain the oil spill caused by the collision between two vessels at the Singapore Strait recently have failed as the spillage has reached Malaysia’s shores.

Malaysian Nature Society Johor advisor on 2 Jun called for the setting up of a special team in Pengerang comprising professionals who can be swiftly mobilised to tackle oil spills should the need arise. Oil spill clean up, he said, should not be left to fishermen or villagers as they had no expertise or equipment to do so.

On a positive note, the staff of Media Prima Bhd (MPB) and its two subsidiaries -- TV3 and The New Straits Times Press -- sent 100 volunteers to help in the clean up and "have decided to form a volunteer squad from our group to render assistance during emergency when voluntary efforts are needed."

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