Money, politics and oil spills
Riaz Khan, Marinav
As interested observers of large oil spills have noted over the past 10 years or more, clean up efforts have not been very successful in either recovering oil from open waters or preventing it from spoiling beaches and ruining related industries. We only have to recall the desperate efforts of thousands of villagers and volunteers on the West Coast of Japan early this year, to confirm that spill response is a science that still needs much improvement. The images of villagers using their hands and ladles to scoop up the thick mousse from the shallows and rocky shore-line are powerful reminders of this fact.
Why do these images of spoiled beaches and dead animals continue to haunt us every time there is a major spill? The answer is a complicated one but we would like to address some core issues – technology, money and the politics of oil spill clean up.
In the realm of technology, some people have had the courage to speak out and tell it like it is – the level of technology to recover spilled oil is antiquated and the majority of the equipment being used for clean up is ineffective. In the words of Vice Admiral John Costello, a former President of the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) who during a candid speech in Seattle in 1993, described the state of technology in the industry as “equivalent to a Model T, a vehicle you wouldn’t want to own today.”
A more recent commentary on the effectiveness of skimmer technology was made by a U.S. Coast Guard official in charge of the Buffalo Marine 292 spill incident on March 6, 1996 in Galveston Bay, where a bunker barge carrying 17,000 tons of fuel broke up in rough but shallow seas. A Coast Guard helicopter filmed the spill within minutes of its being reported and responders were called out in record time. Over 600 people and tons of equipment were involved in the effort for over three weeks, but it became evident after the first day that recovery efforts were being hampered by ineffective skimmers.
At the Clean Gulf ’96 trade show in Galveston later that year, Commander Dean Kutz who co-ordinated the spill response effort, stated that the “oil was so solid that it was almost impossible for those traditional skimmers to work,” Explaining that the type of intermediate oil the barge was carrying required it to be heated for transport and transfer, Commander Kutz said that when the oil hit the cooler Gulf water it immediately turned into tar balls and patties.
In further comments, he said that 18 skimmer vessels were involved in the effort, ” but the oil was too heavy for this type of skimmer”. Photos taken at the site showed skimmers coated with the oil and completely clogged. The MSRC’s vessel, the “Texas Responder” was eventually forced to remove its skimmer from the water and just pumped everything, including water into the recovery barges. Later, local fishing vessels were called in to recover the “tar patties” by hand dipping with nets. We suspect that Commander Kutz’s presentation may have been too candid for his superiors and will probably not be repeated.
On the beaches, the tar patties presented similar problems. Co-ordinators declined to use heavy equipment because it would have caused further damage to the beaches and taken up too much sand. Instead, hand labour was employed with shovels and garbage bags.
So, is this as far as we have gone in developing new technologies? No, there are new and very effective technologies. But why is old and ineffective equipment still being used? One reason may be that there is no incentive for any of the parties who are directly responsible to change the system. They like it the way it is. Managing the issue is simply a matter of spin control.
Despite the serious problems encountered during the Galveston spill, the clean up operation was dubbed a “success” by all the parties involved. Apparently, the fact that the wind and sea currents failed to carry the oil to the tourist beaches of Galveston on a holiday weekend was a direct result of their efforts! Coast Guard coordinators, public officials from Galveston and clean up contractors were unanimous in publicly congratulating themselves on a job well done. But speaking privately and off the record with several individuals who were present during the operation, the story is quite different.
The skimmers did not work, much of the oil sank and we were very lucky with the weather.
Why is there this unholy alliance among the players? As usual, money has a lot to do with it. The MSRC and other clean-up contractors are paid for their equipment and personnel on a time and materials basis by insurance companies. Therefore, the longer the clean-up takes, the more money they make. Insurance companies on their part, have limited liability and their management doesn’t care how much oil is recovered as long as premiums are paid up. Besides, when the limited liability kicks in, there is always the tax payer The US Coast Guard has to justify its existence to the US Congress every year and it would not help their requests for increased budgets if they acknowledged the problem. And, in the case of Galveston, as in other cities, public officials always have the next election to worry about. Given these factors, if a company has a new and more effective technology that can improve preparedness and recover spills more efficiently, its chances of successfully introducing that technology are slim indeed. Why should contractors spend money on better equipment if they are not held accountable? We believe that contractors would be more amenable to effective clean up technologies if they were paid for each barrel of oil that was recovered while at the same time it would force manufacturers of equipment to come up with better solutions.
Is there technology out there right now? The answer, according to one of the industry’s experts is a resounding “Yes!” Danny McKeown, former Special Adviser to the Saudi Government for the Gulf War clean-up effort for the largest oil spill in history and most recently manager of Oil Spill Services at Sembawang in Singapore is a firm believer in a revolutionary new recovery system – the Oil Response Cleaning Apparatus (ORCA) which can recover a wide range of oil types, tarballs, and debris and yet is virtually impossible to clog.
The ORCA represents a totally different approach to oil recovery. While it can be loosely called a “skimmer” the term belies the machine’s true capabilities. The ORCA is a an extremely flexible piece of equipment that is portable, powerful, self-contained with its own power pack and crane, safe to operate in high hydrocarbon atmospheres, easy to set up and operate and can be teamed with any workboat in the vicinity.
In addition, the ORCA is virtually impossible to clog and the good news for profit-minded companies is that it does tank cleaning (vessel and land-based) and other cleanup work around harbours, in lakes and rivers and shipyards instead of sitting in a warehouse waiting for the next spill. The National Iranian tanker Company has used their ORCA for de-sludging their tankers and as part of their standby equipment for oil spill response. Another far sighted company to have purchased the ORCA is Sembawang Maritime’s Singapore Oil Spill Response Centre Pte Ltd.
In spill response, the ORCA can be helicoptered to the spilling vessel and be recovering spilled oil into ballast tanks before the booms are deployed. In less than twenty minutes, two people can set up the machine, lower the hose plus the floatation device to the surface of the water and start recovering 500-1,500 barrels per hour depending upon viscosity of the oil. These recovery rates are proven at vertical heights of 120 feet, which easily meets the requirements of the largest ULCCs. And, for those readers who are asking how much water this vacuum system recovers with the oil, Danny McKeown says the answer is less than 5%. The equipment has been tested by ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) and carries ‘Lloyd’s Type Approval’ Certification.
The ORCA’s resistance to clogging is also a major advantage. Tarballs, dead birds, debris and even fishing nets can be sucked directly into the receiving tank via its “Universal Transfer Hookup” without passing through any machinery.
If beaches are threatened or spoiled, the ORCA can be truck-mounted and used with ordinary 20 foot containers or tank trucks to recover oil and debris from the shoreline as well. In Japan, for example, the ORCA would have greatly improved the recovery effort from the beaches.
An official of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Emergency Response Division recently told us that there is a shift away from mechanical recovery devices and a return to chemical solutions because of the former’s ineffectiveness. This would represent a backward turn of the clock, even if some of the new chemicals are less damaging than they used to be.
The problems described here recur on a global basis. Oil spills are bad for everybody. There are no winners and the best result is a quick clean up with the least damage possible. It is time for the industry to take the lead and include machines like the ORCA in their arsenals of spill recovery equipment,otherwise regulators or an educated public will force the industry to take drastic measures. It is up to the leaders in the industry to take responsibility for efficient clean-up efforts before the public and regulators do it for them in ways that will probably be draconian and very costly.