By Fran Weaver, September 2012
Finland leads a major international exercise testing readiness to clean up oil spills in the Baltic Sea.
The grey waters of the Gulf of Finland south of Helsinki are dotted with ships and boats towing booms, scoops, brush-rollers and skimmers designed to remove spilt oil from troubled waters. The Finnish multipurpose pollution response vessel Louhi practises firefighting by spraying water over a target boat, as a Finnish Air Force helicopter buzzes past above them, overseeing the action.
The annual Balex Delta oil-spill response exercises, coordinated by HELCOM (the Helsinki-based international Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission) are among the largest worldwide – and the 2012 exercise, held in Finnish waters on August 28 and 29, is the biggest ever organised in the Baltic.
“About 250 million tonnes of oil are transported through the Baltic every year, mainly from the Russian end of the Gulf of Finland, and these figures are rising fast,” says Bernt Stedt, head of HELCOM’s response group. “It’s vital for the coastal countries to maintain a joint rapid oil-spill response capacity, so we run exercises for our international HELCOM fleet of 70 response vessels to test procedures and identify scope for improvement.”
Balex Delta 2012 involves a simulated 15,000-tonne oil spill in a high-risk zone in the Gulf of Finland, where passenger ferries and freighters shuttling between Helsinki and Tallinn cross the courses of oil tankers heading west from Russian ports. In parts of the exercise peat has been spilt into the sea to simulate oil slicks. Popcorn was previously used in such trials, but it tended to be gobbled up too quickly by hungry seagulls.
The whole exercise is being led by the Finnish Environment Institute, Finland’s national pollution control authority (known by its Finnish abbreviation SYKE).
“SYKE runs a 24–7 hotline for oil-spill alerts. One of our three main vessels is always ready to respond to a spill within four hours,” says SYKE response commander Kalervo Jolma. “Cleanup efforts on the first day are vital. We reckon on a maximum of three days to act before oil becomes too dispersed to recover.”
On the second day of the exercise, vessels from Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark and Germany can be seen among the dozens of Finnish vessels involved.
“Finland’s national response fleet of 16 oil-recovery vessels is equipped with state-of-the-art technologies,” says Jolma. “Our strengths include the ability to recover oil even in problematic icy conditions. The completion of a brand new multipurpose pollution control vessel in 2015 will further improve our response capacity.”
Many of the vessels practising cleanup procedures in the gulf are using booms, skimmers and brushes bearing the logos of the Finnish company Lamor, a leading global producer of oil-spill recovery equipment.
Baltic marine and coastal ecosystems are highly sensitive to oil pollution. SYKE’s expertise on environmental protection is vital during oil-spill emergencies. The aim is always to recover as much oil as possible offshore, to minimise cleanup costs and ecological damage.
The Balex exercise is also rehearsing responses to ecological impacts. “It takes many pairs of hands to collect oil from polluted shores and to clean oiled birds,” says Jari Luukkonen of WWF Finland. “WWF have a network of more than 6,000 volunteers prepared to help, including hundreds trained to clean beaches or oiled birds. More than 50 of these volunteers have been called on for this exercise – working at our mobile bird-cleaning unit based in Porvoo, at bird-cleaning facilities in Helsinki Zoo, or cleaning up shores where peat was spilt to simulate oil pollution.”
At the end of the simulation exercise, experts were satisfied to report that more than half of the oil spilt in the Baltex Delta 2012 scenario would have been recovered within three days by the vessels involved. The participating organisations emphasised that such exercises play a vital role by testing everyone’s readiness, and highlighting each country’s capabilities to help out their neighbours.
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