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Pollution prevention and response

Date: 31/01/2019

Shipping and port operations are essential nodes of the transport chain. In the case of Malta, being an island State, our ports are vital for our connectivity with the rest of the world for the importation of commodities, consumer goods and fuels used for land transportation, aviation and other industry uses.

Like other transport modes ships need fuel, or as is better known within the industry, bunkers. In addition, Malta, being strategically positioned, has a number of bunker operators that also service ships outside port as a value-added service to the maritime industry.

Incidents involving oil pollution from ships or marine terminals is a matter of concern. Apart from being harmful to the environment, the clean-up operation can be a very costly exercise and could result in a number of potential claims from third-parties. It is therefore important that tanker and bunkering operations are carried out with due diligence, in line with legal provisions and incorporating good practice to minimise incidents resulting in oil spills.

Pollution from shipping and maritime activities can vary from small operational oil spills to major incidents involving oil tankers and platforms such as the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez and more recently the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, in local waters we have not experienced such major incidents but still we still face relatively small accidental oil spills which still merit a prompt and efficient response.

Transport Malta (TM) has a primary role to regulate and set requirements to prevent and control pollution from ships by oil and any other substances within Maltese waters. In recent years, the Ports and Yachting Directorate has focused on stricter controls to ensure the industry, particularly marine terminals and bunker operators, enhances its mitigation measures to prevent pollution and minimise the impacts related to an oil spill incident.

Marine terminals and bunker operators are required to deploy oil booms – specialised equipment to contain the spilled oil – prior to the commencement of any ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship transfer operation. The industry understands the importance of such requirements as if a spill had to occur the substance will remain contained and not contaminate other areas.

Bunker operators are obliged to have a contract with a specialised on-call service provider to provide pollution response and clean-up services on a 24/7 basis. Such contracts provide additional peace of mind to TM as it has to be recognised that in certain incidents, the operator will not be in a position to respond to a spill in an efficient and effective way without the support of these organisations.

In terms of local regulations, on-call pollution response service providers are required to obtain an authorisation from TM in order to offer such services. Companies applying to provide the service are subject to a rigorous audit that will look into various aspects.

The main aspects looked into are the lead response time to provide assistance, training of personnel, availability and upkeep of equipment and availability of response vessels. Once an authorisation is issued, the organisation is continuously monitored by the authority to ensure that incidents are being dealt with in an effective and efficient way.

Although TM and the majority of the industry players do their utmost to prevent incidents, it has to be acknowledged that incidents, mainly attributed to mechanical failure or the human element, including oil spills still occur and hence the importance of being well prepared to deal with effectively with such incidents. An important aspect to increase the level of preparedness is to carry out regular training and exercises. Last year, TM organised a national training programme as part of the project ‘Oil/HNS Spill Response Capacity Building for the Protection of Malta’s Seas’, supported by a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Financial Mechanism. Through this training programme, a total of 125 participants from seven government entities and one NGO received oil/HNS pollution training in accordance with international standards.

As part of Malta’s plan for pollution preparedness and response and in line with international and EU obligations to safeguard the marine environment, the authority organises a National Pollution Response Exercise – MALTEX – on an annual basis. This exercise has been organised for the past 10 years and is usually organised in collaboration with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

A scenario involving a large oil spill is usually drawn up by the exercise planning team and distributed to all stakeholders including private companies from the industry on the day of the exercise.

The exercise is usually divided into two parts: a table-top exercise to test communication and an offshore physical exercise at sea deploying vessels and equipment.

One of the major benefits of EU membership is the service offered by EMSA to Member States. A number of pollution response vessels are based in strategic locations around the EU coastline, including Malta where two vessels are based. The vessels are on 24/7 standby at no cost to the State until requested to assist when a pollution incident occurs.

EMSA also offers the clean sea net service to Member States with regular satellite pictures of the individual areas where suspected oil slicks can be detected. This service is given free of charge to each member state and during an incident additional pictures of the area may be requested.

This year, MALTEX 2018, organised in October, was quite interesting and challenging as new state-of-the-art equipment was tested for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea. This equipment was provided by EMSA as part of their network of pollution response vessels and equipment assistance service available to Member States. This equipment is mainly a combined recovery system which has the possibility to be deployed by a single vessel.

The aims of the exercise were several. Maltese responders from various national entities and private contractors had the opportunity to exercise for the eventuality of a real spill, testing both the communication systems, the equipment and to make sure all roles and responsibilities of the personnel listed in the National Marine Pollution Contingency Plan will be effective during an actual response.

The authority also took the opportunity to test the communication systems and equipment in the newly set up Emergency Control Centre (ECC) at the Port Operations Centre in Marsa.

Although there is a drive to move to cleaner fuels, such as the IMO’s 2020 Sulphur Cap, the transportation, handling and importation of fuel will remain a necessity. Our main aim is to prevent oil spills but it is important to keep on enhancing the response capabilities as incidents will still occur.

TM is pleased to note that the Malta Maritime Forum identifies oil pollution prevention and response as an important key issue that needs to be kept high on the maritime agenda, and look forward to further collaboration with the MMF and all stakeholders to continue improving the level of preparedness and response to spills to achieve our common goals of safeguarding the environment and acting in the public interest.

By Capt. Richard Gabriele FNI who is head, marine operations and incident response at the Ports and Yachting Directorate, Transport Malta

Source: Times of Malta

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