Lack of consideration in ports not showing a slick response

cleaning
Cleaning port infrastructure, UK
boom
Oil spill boom
fender cleaning
Fender cleaning in port, Germany

Ports should take a hard look at their oil spill responses – right down to the architecture and options available, writes Stevie Knight

“Whoever designs ports clearly has no oil spill training,” says Mark Whittington of ITOPF. Beth Esau of Adler & Allan echoes the point: “Sadly there still seems to be little, if any,
consideration given to dealing with oil spills even in the construction of modern ports.”

Both agree that an incident is bad enough, but this particular oversight is multiplying facilities' woes. Take, for example, the recent experience of an (unnamed) Atlantic container facility which suffered a refuelling mishap: in bunkering ports, it's the likeliest cause of these incidents.

While the port managed to install a containment boom around the ship, bad weather compromised the barrier's effectiveness and the architecture added to its troubles: “The big problem here is that the quays are concrete slabs on pillars, resulting in an overhang of more than 30m,” explained Mr Whittington.

“For the spill response process, this design's a nightmare, trapping large volumes of oil underneath”, he says. “There were not any access hatches, so we had to feed the oil pick up equipment from the top of the quay, down over the side and back to the wall, but even then, we could only work when we had tidal clearance.”

For similar reasons, breakwater designs with their typical voids “are also an oil trap” he says, and calls for creativity in getting over the issues.

However, it's not just modern facilities that suffer; older ports have challenges with porous - sometimes historic - walls and open wooden piling which can trap oil “releasing a sheen onto the water with each tide for weeks”, says Ms Esau. Despite being just molecules thick, it can be unpleasantly smelly; so public pressure may to be seen to be dealing with it may exist “even if very little is being achieved by sometimes costly booming”, she adds.

According to Mr Whittington, change might only need a meeting of minds. “There are things that could help, such as access hatches and incorporating built-in booms. If the
architects actually co-ordinated with the oil response people, I'm sure we'd come up with some sensible solutions.”

Timing

Even without these stumbling blocks, response is rarely straightforward. “It's a common misconception that you can simply position a boom across a harbour entrance or river that leads to a port and it will contain the oil,” says Ms Esau, explaining how this only works for those very few ports with a flow below 0.7 knots.

Yet even if you could, you might not want to. “Closing for a week would result in a massive financial hit,” says Mr Whittington. “So the challenge becomes mounting an appropriate response in the middle of a busy operation.” He adds that clear demarcation, berths dedicated to ship cleaning and so on, will certainly help but there's also the potential for
inventive strategies “such as using tugs to create a slow, flushing current” which may be able to move the oil out of problematic locations.

At the same time, it is also important to know when to seek help. While there's a broad range of responses running from the bare minimum to skimmers and trained staff, Ms Esau
underlines that each port should be aware of its limits, understanding “at what point it must seek outside assistance” from its emergency contractor.

That's a pretty difficult target to hit in the heat of the moment, made trickier by the correlation between the speed and the price of the intervention. Obviously business continuity is
crucial, but as a general rule, “the quicker it must be done, the more it could end up costing,” says Ms Esau. Further, she advises early communication with the ship's agents and
insurers because guaranteed payment of the final cleanup bill “can end up having quite an influence over how a response is conducted”.

Plans and opportunities

Given the complexity of the decision-making process, Mr Whittington underscores the necessity of having a tailored procedure. “Do not try to cut-and-paste your name onto your
neighbour's plan” he advises. “Even ports next-door to each other will be very different.”

Despite this, Fremantle harbour master Allan Gray argues for making sure there's still room for initiative to be a factor. When a cargo vessel sprang a leak in January, he was
worried. “We're at a river mouth and it could have been a disaster, especially as we first estimated five tonnes of heavy fuel oil were involved, it turned out to be closer to 40 tonnes.”

However, observation showed the oil had been caught in a circular eddy, so the team looped a boom around the ship and then in a far trickier operation, under the wharf itself. “Stopping the spill there meant very little got away... and we could scale back our duties to daylight hours. It reduced fatigue levels and kept costs down. I'll admit we had a bit of luck,” says Gray, “but you can train your guys to recognise an opportunity when they see it.”

It's also prompted Fremantle to explore alternatives that Mr Whittington would be proud of: “Anecdotally, we knew that all the garbage ended up in the corner of one particular berth, so we've now decided to put in a standpipe that will suck up the trash and floating oil all the time.” More, after chasing the spill underneath the quay, “the team came up with a system of pulleys and ropes that will draw a containment boom under the wharf,” says Gray and a similar situation “will not require as much manual handling”.

Different oils 

Ports' oil spills are far more common than the headline-grabbing, infamous ocean slicks, caused mostly by mechanical or process failures. Port spills are smaller, but with the potential for working their way into all kinds of spaces. As a result, in-situ burning is risky and dispersants are not advisable for shallow waters, “as this just sinks the oil onto the seabed,” says Mr Whittington.

Inside the port, the focus is still on mechanical recovery. “Fit your spill equipment to the likeliest scenarios,” he advises. If skimmers and pumps are part of the armoury, “keep up-to-date about what the port is bunkering as this is the main risk - if, for example, it's a heavier oil, you need to have kit that's going to cope”.

However, the consistency of the spills is changing says Ms Esau, especially as marine diesel has mostly taken over from HFO. Although “considered a far less damaging product” it still presents problems particularly immediately after release. The odour leads to understandable concern from the public “and due to its high toxicity, preventing it from being driven into the water column by passing traffic is essential where there are local fishing grounds or shellfish beds”.

Unfortunately, there's another problem on the horizon. The fuels coming in 2020 may well react very differently to those commonly used at the moment, some showing a tendency to emulsify and thicken in water. Mark Whittington says: “There are concerns about responding to the new fuels, but there are already Norwegian and Canadian teams focused on it." Still, he admits pollution response could be 'interesting' in the coming years as there's “a whole load more fuel formulations in the pipeline”.

Eyes in the sky

As stealing a march on events can help stop costs escalating, oil-spill surveillance technology is rapidly gaining ground. Some emergency response companies are utilising drones to get a good look at what's happening below, but US-based Elastec offers ports a stable, winged helium balloon that can be deployed or retrieved in minutes. The advantage over drones, says the company, is that it will stay aloft for longer - and you don't require a licence to fly it.

This would not work so well if it had not been for an evolution in camera technology that can spot the first four litres of a spill, even at night. “These are the future”, says Manuel Pinheiro of Ocean Sea Maritime Services. The kit can be mounted in a boat or even on a VTS mast or crane. In Rotterdam, for example, it's high enough that it can spot oil 12km from the shore.

One thing that makes it especially attractive is its predictive intelligence says Mr Pinheiro: “In a port, our system can read tide and flow and it knows how the seas work around it, so it says, 'right now you need the assets on this spot, in two hours it will be needed over there'. That will make deployment a lot more effective.”

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