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Europe is the world's largest market in crude oil imports, representing about one third of the world total. Ninety percent of oil and refined products are transported to and from Europe by sea. Inevitably, some of this makes its way into the sea. Whether by accident or as a result of normal ship operations, oil spills severely damage the marine environment. Accidents resulting in massive spills, such as "Prestige" or "Erika", are frightening examples of the problems caused by vessel pollution. Large oil spills at sea constitute a threat to the environment, placing enormous demands on the national authorities responsible for response and clean-up operations.
Besides accidental pollution, caused by ships in distress, there are three types of routine ship operations which pollute the sea: ballast water, tank washings and engine room effluent discharges. Due to these operations, large amounts of oil are pumped deliberately from ships every day, along almost the entire European coastline. This is the greatest source of marine pollution from ships, and one that poses a long term threat to the marine and coastal environment.
Since 1978 the EU has played a vital role in the response to marine pollution, when "an action programme of the European Communities on the control and reduction of pollution caused by hydrocarbons released at sea" was set up. This was later expanded to also deal with other harmful substances.
Preparedness and response mechanisms in the field of marine pollution were reinforced in 2000 with the Community framework for cooperation in the field of accidental or deliberate marine pollution which ran until 2006. Its aim was to support and supplement Member States' efforts and to contribute to improving their capabilities for response in case of incidents. An overview of projects that were financed under the framework can be found here.
The framework was implemented via a Community Information System (CIS) with the purpose of exchanging data on the preparedness for and response to marine pollution and actions such as training, exchange of experts, exercises, pilot projects, surveys of the environmental impact after an accident, etc. The CIS is currently under revision and will be closely integrated with the Common Emergency Communication and Information System (CECIS) under the Civil Protection Mechanism.
Since 1987, the Commission has provided operational support to Member States faced with major pollution incidents through an "Urgent Pollution Alert Section" set up in Brussels when needed and operational on a 24 hour basis. This also covered marine pollution.
In the aftermath of the Erika disaster in 1999, the European Union established the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). The goal of the Agency is to provide technical and scientific assistance to the European Commission and Member States on matters relating to the proper implementation of European Union legislation on maritime safety and pollution by ships. EMSA tasks also cover oil pollution response. EMSA maintains at-sea oil spill recovery services from vessels based in all the regional seas of Europe. These are normal commercial vessels which carry out day-to-day operations in a restricted area but are under contract with EMSA for emergencies. Upon request, the vessels cease their commercial operation and move to the scene of the spill. Other important services that EMSA can provide include satellite imagery for detection and monitoring of oil spills at sea, pollution response experts to give operational and technical assistance and information service for chemical spills at sea.
The Civil Protection Mechanism has covered both civil protection and marine pollution emergencies since its establishment in 2001. When a request for assistance is received from an affected country following a marine pollution incident, the ERCC can quickly mobilise the oil recovery capacity from the Participating States and EMSA and facilitate the deployment of those assets. The ERCC can also facilitate the deployment of marine pollution experts from Member States as part of a Mechanism team.
Since 1987, the following marine pollution interventions have been carried out: