Emergency response: Oil and chemical spill contingency planning

The new OPRC Regulations and the MCA have precipitated a review of emergency response plans by all harbours handling all but the smallest vessels, an essential component of which is an assessment of risk. While most harbours have had such plans for many years based on the professional judgement of the marine staff, the new regime calls for the risk assessment to be written down. All ports have a plan, which is tailored to the types of port user. This document can be used to increase transparency of the port operation. The plan cannot be too prescriptive because the one certainty in accidents is they will be unlike any foreseen scenario. The continuous process of contingency planning is summarised in the figure overleaf.

The objective of emergency or contingency planning is to ‘provide guidance and direction to those who have to respond to an oil spill and to set in motion all the necessary actions to stop or minimise the pollution and reduce its effects on the environment’ (MCA 1998). Consultation forms an essential part of the contingency planning process and according to the regulations ports and harbours must consult with port users, MAFF, SOAEFD or DOENI, the environment agencies, and, unlike waste management planning, the country conservation agencies. A priority activity in the contingency planning process is to undertake a thorough risk assessment of the area to be covered by the plan. The risk assessment must identify the following:

  • the location of all potential oil spill sites and an estimation of the size of the potential oil spills, which can be based on the level of shipping, types of oil handled, location of oil handling facilities and any passing tanker traffic,
  • the fate of and the possible movement of potential oil spills,
  • all environmentally and commercially sensitive areas likely to be adversely effected by potential spills, and
  • the time it will take a likely spill to reach the identified sensitive areas, giving an indication of the response times necessary to minimise the effects on the identified sensitive marine features.

When planning response operations, areas identified as likely to be adversely affected by potential spills should, where practicable, be given the highest priority of response in marine SACs. These areas should be clearly and accurately shown on the response guide which is a simple annotated chart, see second figure overleaf. The guidelines identify three main issues over which there has been some debate, and agreement between ports and harbours and consultees has yet to be reached. These are:

  • The use of dispersants to assist in the breakdown of oil, removing it from the water surface and preventing its spread, but which also promote the penetration of oil into the sediments, potentially affecting shallow fishing grounds and other sensitive intertidal habitats.
  • The protection of ecologically sensitive shorelines, such as salt marshes, is considered of high priority, although protection of long stretches of habitats is often impracticable and short-term economics often receive higher priority.

Clean-up ecologically sensitive areas may actually cause more ecological damage in the long-term and may recover more quickly if left alone.


The Contingency Planning Process as illustrated in the OPRC guidelines (Maritime and Coastguard Agency 1998)

A simple response strategy decision guide taken from OPRC guidelines (Maritime and Coastguard Agency 1998)