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Three Large Oil Spills Within a Week

Updated: May 30, 2022

Jonny Rogers reports on three separate environmental disasters at sea, and explores whether the right people are being held accountable for them.

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Photo by Julian Bock

In less than seven days, oil spills appeared off the coast of three nations: Russia, Trinidad & Tobago and Japan. Environmental disasters like these are a consequence of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, and will remain a disturbing reality for as long as we delay the development of renewable infrastructure.

There is, however, a lot to be learned from how these oil spills were managed (or otherwise), though they raise questions about whether corporations and governments are currently being held sufficiently responsible for polluting our oceans and atmosphere. Images of marine life and sea birds covered in crude oil might be deeply upsetting, but the scale of the damage extends far beyond what can be seen.

Black Sea, Russia

On the 7th August, oil being pumped into the Minerva Symphony tanker near the Russian port of Novorossiysk began to spill into the Black Sea. The terminal belongs to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which is responsible for the transportation of crude oil from Kazakhstan.

Satellite imagery revealed that the spill had contaminated an area of 80 square kilometres, which is 400,000 times larger than was first claimed by CPC. Although a storm was initially thought to have pushed the spill further out to sea, traces of oil were also found at a dolphin aquarium in Bolshtoy Utrish 25 kilometres west of the accident, as well as other areas along the Black Sea coast.

Within a few days, Russia’s Investigative Committee began conducting a criminal probe on the charge of inflicting damage to marine resources. However, Veniamin Kondratyev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, claimed that he saw no traces of the oil after flying over the area in a helicopter.

Gulf of Paria, Trinidad & Tobago

A leak along a 12-inch pipeline near an oil refinery in Pointe-à-Pierre, Trinidad & Tobago, lead to volumes of oil spilling into the Gulf of Paria. The Paria Fuel Trading Company Ltd confirmed that the spill had been discovered on the evening of Saturday 7th August, and claimed that they had installed absorbent booms to limit its migration.

However, fishermen in the area have criticised the company for its ‘half-hearted’ clean-up attempt, not least given the apparent lack of evidence that booms had actually been used. Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) documented boats speeding through the spill, most likely to break up the oil without having to remove it. Instead, dissipated oil sinks to the ocean bed, where it will cause long-term harm to both oceanic and terrestrial life as it enters the food chain.

Gary Aboud of FFOS has called on the authorities to publicly reveal the cause, volume and nature of the spill, noting the present lack of accountability for environmental negligence:

“There have been in excess of 377 oil spills since 2015 and no one has ever been charged or prosecuted. Every drop of hydrocarbon has an ever-lasting impact on our marine ecosystem.”

Thousands of people in the area depend on fishing as their main source of income, and oil spills can severely impact the industry: oil can render fishing nets useless, force marine life to migrate to cleaner areas and cause a decrease in sales of fish. A study in 2019 found that samples of fish caught in the Gulf of Paria had unsafe levels of carcinogens.

Aomori Prefecture, Japan

On Wednesday 11th August, strong winds forced the Crimson Polaris - a cargo vessel carrying woodchips from Thailand - to run aground in shallow waters off the coast of north-eastern Japan. Although the ship was initially freed, it was then forced to anchor a few miles from Hachinohe harbour due to severe weather where it proceeded to split in half, leaking oil into the ocean.

Although none of the 21 crew members were harmed in the accident, the real damage will be seen over the coming weeks, months and years, and will most severely impact the surrounding marine life. Within hours, the oil spread across an area 24 kilometres in length and 800 metres in width, with an estimated 1,600 tons of oil remaining inside the ship.

Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK), the ship’s charterer, confirmed that the Maritime Disaster Prevention Center quickly arrived on the scene to control the spill with oil-treatment agents and absorption mats. By Friday, however, the oil had reached the nearby coastal city of Misawa. NYK previously claimed that recovery companies will be prepared to perform beach cleaning as soon as oil is found on the coast.

Concluding Comments

Thankfully, August hasn’t been all bad news on the topic of oil spills and corporate responsibility. Following a long legal battle, the Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay £80 million to the Ejama-Ebubu people in southern Nigeria for a spill that occurred during the 1967-70 Biafran War. Although this compensation has inarguably come many decades later than it should have, the news follows another blow to Shell’s business: in a landmark court case at the end of May, the fossil fuel conglomerate was forced to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% before 2030, marking the first time that a corporation has been legally obligated to comply with the Paris Agreement.

The effective management of environmental disasters demands full transparency and accountability. As the recent oil spills demonstrate, authorities and corporations are often very quick to downplay the scale of damage, and instead jump to short-term ‘solutions’ that might only exacerbate the environmental consequences; we should, at the very least, prioritise the account of scientists and independent investigators over corporate or political spokespersons.

It is in the interest of our health, economy, and planet that we can track and respond to accidents as they arise, and that our legal system successfully delivers justice for those directly impacted by pollution.


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