Oil Spill Response Preparedness
Capt D C Sekhar
Founder Director
AlphaMERS Ltd

The article details on the preparedness of marine oil spill response caused by ships breakdown carrying crude or by oil platform to safeguard the Marine biota, fisheries, and flora & fauna.

Scenarios that are safely tucked away in contingency plans, occasionally stare at us through the television screens. It is only in such times, that the enormity of the environmental calamity that oil spills can cause, dawn on us. However it will be comforting to know, there is an established regulatory and response mechanism continuously at work to ensure this risk is managed well. The phases of an oil spill response can be seen in various stages - detection, containment, recovery and disposal.

Clandestine discharge is always a problem to any coastal authority. Various surveillance methods have been used to detect and dissuade such pollution. The means to detect oil spills range from Satellites to aircrafts, drones, boats, radars and buoys. Each has a different footprint it can cover, a different capital cost, different operating costs and reliability of information. However, it stands to reason that the default system in place must have low costs. Only when a spill has been detected, would you mobilise all the wherewithal to assess and respond.The technology available today allows you to choose the right platform, the right sensors, the suitable powering systems, and suitable telemetry to meet your needs, real time as soon as the spill happens.

Containment and Recovery
The acronym - NEBA - or 'Net environmental benefit analysis' comes in very useful in dealing with oil spills. Broadly it means, intervene only when you see a net environmental benefit by the intervention. If the spill has entered a mangrove or such sensitive ecosystems, there is potentially more damage done by hundreds of men entering this zone and trying to manually clean it up. Experts would advise you to leave it alone. It may be worth remembering that nature also breaks up and naturally degrades oil, albeit at a slower pace.

Containment:In a recent case of a ship sinking, the oil emanating from a fuel tank air pipe of about six inch diameter continued to pour out and coated over twenty miles of the coastline. These instances remind us of the importance of having capability to promptly control the oil at source. The salvage companies bring this capability, given their expertise to handle such situations. In most cases,deploying booms around the spill is the answer. However, logistics challenges can overwhelm the unprepared. Typically booms on a boom reel can weigh up to 3 tons and moving this around in trucks and boats needs some level of preparedness. The booms are not effective in sea conditions of over BF 4 or 5. Thus often the only option is the last option of applying oil spill dispersants. These dispersants break up the oil into tiny droplets providing a larger surface area for bio degradation and help them sink. The oil is sent down the water column and it is not gone immediately. Thus it is never the first choice. Protocol exists for obtaining regulator's permissions prior deploying the dispersant in the waters.

AlphaMERS staff inflating the boom for mock drill deployment

Containing oil in fast currents has always been a problem area in marine oil spill response. The hanging skirt of the boom is not designed to hold itself against water when relative speed goes beyond one knot. This has been always been a constraint in rivers and waters with strong currents. This is also a constraint in expediting response in normal waters, to contain and skim the oil quickly through the waters.

One product to deal with this problem is from a well-established European brand and other is recently developed by Bengaluru based AlphaMERS Ltd, a company founded by the author of this article.

In almost all oil spills there is an initial period where the lighter components evaporate. In lighter oil spills, the entire oil vanishes and in heavy crudes, the heavier components remain. This is factored in when deciding to apply OSD. In Macando incident in Gulf of Mexico, dispersant was applied for the first time right at the source of spill, a mile under the sea.

Mechanical Skimmers of all types are used for recovering the oil at sea. They are classed according to the capacities and viscosities they cater to. Most of these skimmers are driven by portable hydraulic power packs.

Coastal spills pose many more immediate challenges. The threat to the biota, the economic impact, the fisheries, the flora and fauna are higher. Most open sea skimmers or booms do not work on coast and specialized equipment is required.

Debris is another problem to be dealt with. The working conditions vary so much that it will put to test all the available mechanical and pumping gear available.

AlphaMERS set out few months ago to develop debris barrier for oil spills. The developed product became very popular as trash barrier for control of solid waste on rivers.

Ships and Platforms
There is a big difference in how the catastrophy of a spill from a ship break up or an oil exploration spill can pan out to be.

The AlphaMERS debris boom is now modified for use as trash barrier for non-oil purposes

While a ship spill can suddenly bring tens of thousands of tons of oil to the shoreline and the details available can be sketchy. The characteristics of oil, the vessel owners' co-ordinates, and even the coastal ecological sensitivity details may not be readily available.

However, a spill from an oil production platform presents a different scenario. The oil characteristics are known, contingency plans are in place, spill trajectories are known and response resources are clearly identified. The saving grace is that, the exploration company owners are known and will respond very quickly.

Tier III Spills
When the spill size overwhelms the local and national resources, international resource pooling is done and the spill is classed as Tier III spill. In India the spills over 10000 MT are classed as Tier III spills. However the authorities may insist on mobilizing Tier III resources earlier, subject to the evolving scenario and its potential to cause damage.

Currently the resources for Tier III spills are not placed in India and the practicality of air freighting the bulky items in an emergency, is very debatable. This remains an environmental vulnerability for the country. Raising these resources by private companies need a sound revenue model to sustain itself. AlphaMERS has explored initiating the stockpile as a private player, but the patronage prospects from oil industry within the country has not been highly encouraging.

International Spill Control Organization (www.spillcontrol.org), based in London has been very instrumental in enhancing the wherewith to deal with oil spills around the world. ISCO has developed a model contract to procure spill response equipment from various international sources in a major spill . This document intends to do to spill response industry what the LOF did to the salvage industry. ISCO has members from over 45 countries and maintains a database of equipment, experts and other resources of these members.

Capt. Sekhar, the author, is the honorary India representative on the council of the ISCO. He can link up any local facility in need of additional resources, to this pool of responders and experts from these 45 countries.

Mock Drills and Real Deployment
It makes sense to utilse operating resources of the facility to in an emergency. This will result in minimising dedicated vessels and vehicles, thereby optimising costs on dedicated idle resources. However the operating resources may not always be readily available and thus a ratio of two or three times the required resources are engaged in the mock drills. This will ensure at least one of them is available in an emergency.

Preventive booming around an STS operation by AlphaMERS using only available country crafts

The real deployment brings out the real challenges to the capabilities of the response structure. The authors' company made a recent deployment of preventive booming around an STS. While being preventive and thus not a response to a spill, it was planned but with tremendous urgency. The inventory was partly mobilized from company's stockpile and partly imported from industry partners overseas. It was airfreighted from overseas and brought to site on an 'urgent' mode at high freight costs. The entire deployment and retrieval at site was done manually using country crafts. This required excellent manpower, which was thankfully available locally. The available boats were quite low powered. Towing a long stretch of boom was a very slow and patient process.

Another challenge in this operation was the growth on the hull of one vessel - barnacles - that could easily tear the boom fabric apart upon contact. Some quick thinking by the site team, resulted in improvised fenders, which were deployed to keep the boom off the vessel's hull and the barnacles. In spite of the various challenges, the deployment went off smoothly and quite uneventfully.

Unlike natural calamities or fire emergencies, spill response does not occur too often, thankfully so. The practical experience of most companies is limited to cleaning up of shoreline which is a slow, methodical, manpower intensive and planned operation with international experts for advice. The experience of dealing with live situations of containment and recovery is limited. This necessitates in learning from experiences from such incidents in other parts of the world. Training and drills must make up for the lack of real spill experience and necessary to be ready for the day when this capability is tested.