State Audit Office: Estonia not capable of combating oil tanker accident

Toomas Mattson | 11/19/2004 | 12:00 AM

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TALLINN, 19 November 2004 - The State Audit Office (SAO) has found that, despite the high probability of an oil tanker accident with extensive consequences in Estonian waters, the state is not able to detect pollution in time or to recover it with own forces, thus endangering the entire Baltic Sea.

It is a serious problem, since heavy vessel traffic and the continuing growth of the transportation of oil products and other chemicals on the Baltic Sea adds to the probability of a pollution incident. Oil transport via Estonian ports has increased by nearly 20 times in the period from 1993 to 2002. On average there are 2,000 vessels floating on the Baltic Sea every day and about 200 of these are oil tankers.

The Environmental Inspectorate has analyzed the probability of an oil tanker accident with extensive consequences in Estonian waters and has found that it is immense – 3 to 5 incidents within a period of 10 years. The pollution damage to the environment, depending on the size and nature of pollution, may be disastrous. Therefore it is essential that the government be able to take fast and effective action in response to a pollution incident.

Problems start with the marine pollution remaining undiscovered. In the SAO opinion, the ability of the Border Guard Administration to spot pollution is relatively small and there is no assurance that the pollution already occurred is quickly traced.

Poor detection ability is mainly due to the lack of modern airborne surveillance equipment, the small number of flights and the fact that no risk factors are taken into account when planning aerial surveillance. On the average, only 1 or 2 patrol flights are carried out weekly.

Once the pollution has occurred and has been detected, its fast recovery should be started. In order to efficiently coordinate the internal activities of the authority responsible for the recovery of pollution as well as its collaboration with other authorities in case of a sea pollution incident, the existence of a national pollution emergency plan is essential.

For the time being Estonia does not have a national pollution emergency plan. The biggest pollution incident ever occurred in Estonia – the oil spillage caused by the oil tanker Alambra four years ago – sharply revealed the consequences of the lack of the said plan: an immediate and adequate recovery of the pollution could not be organized, i.e., the parties concerned did not know where to obtain equipment, which institutions should do what and when, how to prevent the spread of the spill, etc. Nevertheless, the ministries have failed to agree to date whose responsibility is the development of such a plan.

According to the SAO, there are serious shortcomings in the management of the technical combating equipment. The Border Guard Administration is able to recover up to 200 tons of spilled oil with the currently available equipment, but this is only about a tenth of what is required.

The existing combating equipment does not suit for recovery of pollution at low temperatures and in ice conditions, although for most part of the year it is indispensable given the high risk of a pollution incident.

In the light of a low combating ability, the government is especially grieved at negligent maintenance of the existing equipment. For instance, part of the equipment used for the elimination of the pollution caused by the Alambra was never cleaned and thus turned useless and the Environmental Inspectorate had to write off equipment in the amount of EEK 66,000. Part of the equipment has still not been cleaned up, including one open sea recovery cassette, acquired in 1997 for EEK 4.3 million, cleaning of which is estimated to cost EEK 900,000.

At the same time, the new combating equipment (booms) acquired a year ago for EEK 23.5 million under the Estonian - Danish joint project cannot be used since it does not fit on the existing vessels. The Estonian government funded the project with EEK 7.8 million.

In order to use the acquired equipment it would be necessary to re-build the existing vessels. Since not any agency can tell the cost of alterations or the beginning of such works, it is unknown when the new combating equipment can be put to use.

Hence, the actual pollution response ability is even lower than in September 2000 during the Alambra incident when approximately 250 tons of crude oil leaked into the sea. Estonia is currently able to recover a massive pollution at sea only with the assistance of foreign countries.

Although the risk of pollution is immense and Estonia’s combating ability is small, the penalties, fines and pollution charges meant for the punishment of polluters are significantly below the international minimum standard and do not take account of the damage to the environment. In addition, the claim for a pollution charge is in contravention of international commitments, since it does not allow the ship owner to limit his liability to an amount which is linked to the tonnage of the vessel.

In the event of the Alambra accident, the government lost about EEK 37 million of pollution charges and by mutual agreement of the parties only 19 % of what was claimed was actually received. In laying claims for pollution damage corresponding to the pollution charge, the government risks with remaining without the corresponding compensation for pollution damage from international funds in future, if ship owners are not able to satisfy the claim.

Contradictory and differently interpretable regulations may lead to a situation where in case of sea pollution, there is no opportunity for penalizing the polluter and the state loses compensation for the sustained damage.

The SAO states that the Ministry of the Environment has not been able to ensure compliance with the Convention in respect of the protection of the marine environment: different authorities do not cooperate in combating pollution and the domestic legislation governing the field is deficient and unclear.

Neither the Ministry of Internal Affairs nor the Ministry of the Environment considered itself responsible for the strategic planning for marine pollution recovery, e.g., the development of a national pollution control plan. Because of the different views on responsibility, inter-agency collaboration is entangled. Since different ministries have failed to come to an agreement about the common coordinator of the field, the SAO will submit it to the government for decision.

Toomas Mattson
Communication Manager of National Audit Office
Telephone: 6400 777
Mob: 51 34900
E-mail: [email protected]

  • Posted: 11/19/2004 12:00 AM
  • Last Update: 9/30/2015 11:20 AM
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