As an independent marine, engineering consultancy and survey organisation, LOC may represent either party in an accident investigation into pollution in a port or harbour.
The investigation is likely to be triggered by a vessel being detained as part of a clean-up operation following an oil pollution accident. LOC will examine the incident and the responses often culminating in a civil case, where one party is seeking compensation for damages or lost business from another.
Capt. Brian McJury, Master Mariner, LOC says that as you might expect, the most common cause of any pollution incident is human error. He adds that there are numerous pieces of legislation and guidelines from all manner of administrations, agencies and industry groups, which have long been in place, along with requirements for state oversight of local spill response plans.
These documents are all very informative and useful when things are really bad, but they can be rather a blunt tool to deal with many occurrences in smaller ports, where you actually just need some small scale, practical, operational guidance.
He says that in his experience, in a smaller port, the port may need to use its discretion when dealing with a small pollution incident, as broad brush response and generic guidelines can be of little use to a lone Harbour Master in the heat of an early morning argument with a ships’ Master and Chief Engineer.
He adds that generally, there are two types of pollution incident, where the source is either known or unknown.
If the source is known regardless of the spill size, it is an easy response decision. A known source is a blessing for enforcement action, both in terms of sending a message to other port users and also in terms of compensation to cover the port costs to clean up.
It is a rare occurrence to catch someone red handed, and if they were, their own actions to mitigate the pollution generally minimise the follow-up actions required and the upfront costs incurred for the harbour, not to mention the bonus of extra help from the vessel crew.
He adds that in his experience, catching a red-handed polluter meant the ‘shall we/shan’t we’ decision of invoking a tier 2 responder was negated, as someone else was clearly going to be on the hook for costs rather than the harbour, so he was more than happy to make full use of the emergency phone numbers!
If the pollution is from an unknown source however, the situation can be more complicated.
If it is a large spill then it remains an easy response decision, says Brian, a statutory duty means getting on with it and the cost will just have to be absorbed either directly or in increased insurance premiums. The difficulty comes from attributing the pollution to a culprit. It is possible for a Harbour Master in the UK to detain a vessel with reasonable grounds, but the civil liability this potentially carries for the port if you are incorrect is certainly uppermost in your mind at 0230, alone, on a Sunday morning. Even once the area is returned to a pristine condition, any pursuing of a possible culprit is not without cost implications and small ports usually have small cash reserves.
It may be easier to achieve reasonable grounds against a particular vessel in a lock system of course, but for estuarine ports with full quays it is a different story. Sampling methods and then test procedures need to be robust in advance as they will certainly be questioned, along with the simple matter of the time taken to get the results. It is not easy to arrange getting a several full hydrocarbon sample bottles to a lab 300 miles away on a Sunday morning.
This could mean that the Harbour Master is looking at a few days’ vessels detention at a point where there is no definitive ‘smoking gun’. Charterers do not need to wait for late vessels in the current market, and what recourse will a struggling vessel owner have?
However, the most problematic scenario is always the ‘threshold’ spill… not that big to need a tiered response, but not small enough to disappear without some port intervention and no clear source. The only people who will be paying for this is the port, both in labour and consumables. Certainly, a port can increase port dues to cover unforeseen spills, but increasing port dues to ‘safe’ charterers and owners is hardly the stuff of competitive advantage. Small vessels have a large choice of ports.
Identifying the source may be near on impossible Brian adds, using as an example, one of his previous roles where there were many occasions when a 19th century built town drainage system would throw out a light sheen from who knew where, or the almost permanent sheen around the fishery vessel end of the port, interspersed with a few moments of washing up liquid being agitated by a loud diesel engine, a reliable indicator of mischief.
At these times, the most calming viewpoint to adopt was using the deployment of a few booms and absorbents as a good training session for staff rather than focusing on the injustice of the phantom polluter. Often in such cases only a few people needed to be used for an hour, rather than pulling an entire gang off a working ship. Unfortunately this calming viewpoint was somewhat strained when having to bring staff in over weekends at double time.
This approach did pay dividends though if larger spills occurred, as the knowledge of equipment and speed of deployment was more extensive than could have been possible with just a single annual training day.
The tier 2 provider has a ready source of information but their profit is maximised by mobilising staff, hence they may be keen to push the Harbour Master to agree to this. However, Brian says that in his experience another good source of assistance and mutuality toward these small unknown spills was to be found in the local environment agency. They deal professionally with similar spills of the smaller variety on a daily basis and getting to know them at the local operational level was very worthwhile. This included having some of their staff attend port pollution training refreshers, and inviting them on site while actually containing larger spills, while being fully open and transparent in operational matters in an effort to build trust.
Brian concludes that having confidence in the proportionality of your response is key and although a formal ‘agreement’ on action was not possible between the port and an environment agency, given the statutory duties involved, in his experience their erudite second opinion was invaluable where there was doubt as to what did and did not need action.
Another factor affecting size of response might be the public relations aspect, if a port or harbour is accessible to the general public or a spill is particularly smelly or visible then a relatively high profile response might be appropriate to reassure stakeholders, even if it’s a small spill with minimal impact. For the public any spilt oil in the harbour is because of the harbour…
However, he adds, his experience in a very large enclosed estuary with the proximity of multi-million pound licenced aquaculture sites, major tourism, leisure and protected wildlife areas the prevailing action was leaving small spills for environmental degradation rather than physical clean up. Clearly it was an effective tactic; it returned the area to pristine condition, avoided disposal of contaminated consumables, resulted in no claims from aquaculture operators and also was the best result for a small port balance sheet!