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‘POP&C’ project to prevent maritime oil spills

Oil spills caused by tanker incidents result in catastrophic environmental damage and are almost always the subject of lengthy and potentially embarrassing media attention. Now, the European Union is taking action to ensure that oil-soaked birds and blackened coastlines become a thing of the past.

Cleaning up after Prestige; Image: AP Photo/EFE, Lavendeira
Cleaning up after Prestige; Image: AP Photo/EFE, Lavendeira

According to data from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, oil pollution caused by tankers has been reduced considerably over the past decade; pollution recorded in 1997-2003 was only a quarter of what it was for 1990-1996. This improvement is partly the result of vastly improved tanker design. For example, single hulled oil tankers, generally more vulnerable to damage than the double-hulled variety, are now being phased out across Europe.

Despite this improvement, concern remains at the lack of scientific data on why tanker spills happen and how they can be prevented.

Scientific assessment

Some of Europe’s most prestigious maritime experts have now come together to provide the first comprehensive assessment of oil spill risk and management. The three-year EU-funded POP&C project (Pollution Prevention and Control – safe transportation of hazardous goods by tankers), launched in January 2004, has three main objectives:

  • to develop a methodology by which tanker owners can calculate the spill risk posed by their ships;
  • to assess and provide advice on ways to reduce these risks; and
  • to advise tanker crews on how to mitigate pollution damage once a spill has occurred.

As a result of the €2 million project, the EU hopes tanker designers and operators will be able to make more informed choices about how they build and use their vessels, as well as how to prevent small spills from turning into catastrophic ones.

According to Dr Seref Aksu of the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, POP&C is aimed at improving the situation immediately. “We believe that we can achieve better safety by applying preventive methods right now on existing vessels,” he says. “We are looking to identify the inherent risks associated with different types of tanker design.”

Project findings are also likely to affect new tanker designs and future operational recommendations. It may also reveal areas where further research is needed, for example in terms of tanker operational technology.

Investigating the past

In November 2002, the Prestige tanker suffered hull damage just off northern Spain. After developing a list, it eventually broke in two, losing much of its 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil cargo in the process. During the first phase of the POP&C project, historical information on past oil spills, such as the Prestige incident, will be assessed. Researchers will identify the main reasons why tankers have accidents and spill their loads.

At least initially, researchers are planning to focus their studies on medium-sized tankers, which carry around 100,000 tonnes of oil. However, it is expected that the project will be expanded in future to include a full range of ship sizes.

Once the historical investigation has been completed, researchers hope to have identified the main design and operational culprits behind catastrophic oil spills. They will then rank them in order of greatest risk. From this, maritime operators will be able to calculate how much of a risk their own tankers pose, explains Aksu.

The second phase will focus on ways in which tanker owners can improve safety. For example, they may find that a particular ship’s spill risk could be greatly reduced if it were fitted with anti-collision systems.

Mitigating damage

As long as so much of the world’s oil is transported by ship, says Aksu, there will always remain a risk of oil spills, however much is done to try and prevent them. The third part of the project will investigate and recommend a variety of pollution prevention and protection methods that can be used by tanker crews in the event that a spill has taken place.

“After a spill” explains Aksu, “on-board decisions or crisis management can still be effective. For example, something as simply as closing valves in certain areas of the ship might prevent a small incident from becoming a catastrophic one.”

POP&C is being led by International Tanker Owners (Intertanko), supported by some of Europe’s leading maritime safety players, including four universities, five research organisations, two classification societies, two shipyards and three tanker operators. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is acting as an external observer and advisor.