According to Capt. Brian McJury, a Master Mariner at London Offshore Consultants, Paris, the response can be very enthusiastic in a small ports when a pollution incident occurs.

In the event of a spill, it is not always immediately clear who the culprit is

In the event of a spill, it is not always immediately clear who the culprit is

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.

Brian 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.

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. In the UK, for example, (although LOC covers all jurisdictions) it is possible for a Harbour Master 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.

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!

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.