Oil Spill Combating â A German Approach
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the resulting oil spill threatening the Gulf Coast have brought the environmental dangers posed by the oil industry back into the American consciousness again. In the short run, the most important task is stopping the oil flow and alleviating its effects on the environment. In the long run, however, the focus will shift on how to prevent future oil spills. Hereby, the two main questions will be how to implement more stringent safety standards for offshore drilling and how to improve the response, once an oil spill has occurred
With regards to responding the maritime oil spills, Europe has got a headstart on the US, born out of tragic necessity. For in 1978, the tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the Breton coast, dumping its entire cargo of 1.6 million barrels of crude oil into the English Channel and polluting large stretches of the French coast. This disaster and several that followed served as a wake-up call to many European states, when it became clear that they had neither the means nor the plans to respond to such an incident. As a result, national oil spill combating concepts were implemented in many European countries.
In Germany, the responsibility for disaster clean-up lies with the state (unlike e.g. Britain where private companies handle the response to oil spills). Hence, the German government commissioned both universities and private companies to develop oil recovery equipment and set up authorities to coordinate the response to oil spills and other disasters.
For the sea and coastal areas, this authority, founded in 2003 by combining a number of smaller regional agencies is the marine disaster command Havariekommando (http://www.havariekommando.de), based in the town of Cuxhaven on the North Sea coast. The Havariekommando is in charge of responding to any disaster occurring in German waters and coordinating the efforts of the Germany Navy, Coast Guard as well as private entities.
The Havariekommando is also in charge of maintaining and deploying the necessary equipment in the case of an oil spill. In addition to tanks, oil booms, which contain the spill area, and other miscellaneous equipment, this also includes seven high sea oil spill combating vessels, operated by the German Coast Guard, Navy as well as private owners. These vessels are stationed in various ports along the shores of the North and Baltic Sea and can operate at wind speeds of up to Beaufort 5. In the event of an oil spill, these vessels are deployed to skim off the oil from the water surface. Several vessels are able to handle chemical spills as well.
There are various types of oil recovery systems. Most of the German oil spill combating vessels use TECHNOMAR high sea skimming systems, which consist of two skimmer arms floating alongside the vessel’s hull at an angle of approx. 60Â°. These skimmer arms collect the oil from the water surface and pump it aboard the vessel with a capacity of up to 320 mÂ³/h. The skimmers are equipped with a heating system to break up highly viscous oil, so it will not clog pumps and hoses.
The main problem with skimming systems is that only a very small percentage of what they collect is oil. Any skimming system, regardless of type, collects 50 to 85 percent water, because water functions as a carrier medium for the oil. As a result, the storage tanks of oil spill combating vessels will quickly fill up with a mixture that is mostly water. So, in order to make tank capacities last longer and recover the valuable oil, specialists began looking for a way to separate the water from the collected oil. The result is the TECHNOMAR oil/water separation system, which exploits the physical principles of gravity and coalescence, i.e. the tendency of oil droplets to adhere to oleophile materials such as certain plastics, to separate oil and water. The system is fully automatic, chemical additives or long settling periods are not necessary. All seven German high sea oil spill combating vessels are equipped with built-in TECHNOMAR oil/water separation systems, the largest of which has a throughput rate of 640 mÂ³/h.
Dedicated oil spill combating vessels are costly to maintain, because they need to be crewed 24/7 and yet will spend large amounts of time sitting in harbour. Therefore, all German oil spill combating vessels are multi-purpose vessels, doubling as buoy-layers, patrol boats, fire fighting vessels and in the case of the navy vessel MV Eversand as a refuelling station for navy helicopters and ships. As soon as an oil spill is reported, the vessels are recalled from their regular duties to respond to the disaster.
However, oil spills do not only pose an environmental hazard to sea and coastal areas but also to inland waters such as rivers, lakes and canals. In Germany, the federal disaster relief agency THW is in charge of responding to oil spills in inland waters in cooperation with the local fire brigades. The THW consists almost entirely of volunteers and deals with disasters of all kinds, from floods and earthquakes to manmade accidents such as train crashes and oil spills, both in Germany and abroad. THW teams and equipment are often deployed outside Germany, for example a THW flood response team helped with the clean-up operations in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The THW has several oil spill response teams stationed all over Germany. Each response team consists of trained volunteers and is equipped with oil booms, pumps, inland water skimmers and a TECHNOMAR SEPCON mobile oil/water separation unit. SEPCON units function according to the same principle as the separation systems used aboard oil spill combating vessels, but they have been installed in standard ISO 20′ containers for greater mobility. Hence, a SEPCON unit can be placed on a trailer truck or a barge to be used wherever an oil spill has occurred.
In the event of a massive oil spill such as the Pallas disaster in 1998, the Erika disaster in 1999 or the Prestige disaster in 2002, THW, German Navy, Coast Guard and private companies combine their forces and equipment under the control of the Havariekommando in order to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to the situation at hand. Since such severe oil spills are thankfully rare, the various agencies involved in oil spill response conduct regular training missions in order to keep on their toes and ready for the next serious incident.
Once the immediate effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been dealt with, the United States will have to develop its own concepts to respond to future incidents. Perhaps, the German model can serve as an inspiration. For it is certain that the next massive oil spill will happen, it is only a matter of when and where.
Technomar GmbH & Co.KG:
Mr A. Buhlert, firstname.lastname@example.org