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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentWater for sustainable growth: "Nor any drop to drink"
View the documentThe work of UNU/INWEH: Improving water management
View the documentStanding in line for water: Cooperation on the Ganges and Brahmaputra
View the documentHydropolitics along the Danube
View the documentCity water: 21st century challenge
View the documentNew ways to govern the seas
Open this folder and view contentsRavaged seas in Central Asia
View the documentHistory's plagued seas: The Mediterranean
View the documentClimate, history and water
View the documentWater: The 21st century's oil?
View the documentA chemical eye on water
View the documentWhen oil troubles waters

When oil troubles waters

By Yoko Kobayashi

On the homepage of the new Global Environment Information Centre (GEIC), you can find ecological data from the far-flung reaches of the seven seas. As its name suggests, its interests are global. But a few months after the GEIC was established in late 1996, as a joint effort of the UNU and the Environment Agency of Japan, its expertise got a sort of "shakedown cruise" very close to home. In January 1997, in the icy waters of the Sea of Japan, an aging Russian tanker had split open, spilling a large part of its 120 thousand barrels of low-grade fuel oil into currents swirling towards Japan's eastern coastline. Severe damage was caused to the local marine ecosystems.

Many forces sprang into action: fishermen, local towns, Japan's Self-Defense Forces, national agencies, corporations. Great numbers of volunteers, spurred by media images of bedraggled, oil-fouled seabirds, rushed to the scene. Responsibilities were not clear. There were questions about collection methods. Over a quarter-million volunteer man-days were involved in the ensuing clean-up efforts, with five volunteers dying in the frigid work in icy waters.

The GEIC set about monitoring the many actors involved in the unfolding scenario. A great deal was learned about natural disaster management, a major area of the Centre's concern. It gave particular attention to the manner in which information about the disaster was disseminated and used. And, as Yoko Kobayashi points out in her account of the oil spill disaster and its aftermath, GEIC pointers for better disaster management were most helpful a few months later when, right at the UNU's doorstep, another tanker spilled crude oil into Tokyo Bay. Ms. Kobayashi is a member of the staff of the GEIC. - Editor

At 02.51 hours on 2 January 1997, the 8th Maritime Safety Headquarters of the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency was informed that the Russian-registered tanker Nakhodka (built in 1970, 19,684 dead weight tons, with a crew of 32) had broken up off the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan and was leaking its cargo of grade C oil, a low-quality fuel oil. The tanker was carrying about 120,000 barrels of oil; nearly 40,000 barrels (6,000 kilolitres) of which leaked into the sea. The ensuing damage to coastal maritime life was one of the worst marine pollution disasters in the country's history.

The oil from the Nakhodka and its bow section drifted in a northwesterly direction due to seasonally strong winds. On 7 January, the bow grounded on rocks about 350 metres from the coast of Mikuni in Fukui Prefecture. The oil reached the coast of Ishikawa Prefecture on 8 January. It eventually polluted the coastlines of nine prefectures, causing severe damage to the marine ecosystem.

On 6 January, the government held the first meeting of a liaison council of ministries and agencies set up to deal with the Nakhodka spill. Two days later it established a Head Office for Countermeasures. The Headquarters announced several steps, including secondment of additional Self-Defense Forces (the Japanese armed forces) to the polluted area, with instructions on how to dispose of the oil collected, along with guidelines for health control.

The Maritime Safety Agency, the Self-Defense Forces, local municipalities, fishery cooperatives, other concerned authorities, residents in the polluted areas, and corporations and volunteers from all over Japan participated in the ensuing clean-up work.


Volunteers help cleaning the beaches after the Nakhodka oil spill in the Sea of Japan. (Hekurajima, Wajima City, 24 February 1998) (Photo: The Hokkoku Shimbun)

Oil "fences" were placed on the sea by the Maritime Safety Agency to prevent the oil from reaching the coast - but they were not effective due to bad weather and a shortage of stock. The safety agency, along with local fishermen and the SDF troops, cooperated in cleaning oil slicks from the water surface.

Volunteers Rush to Scene

In all, volunteers put in a total of 260,000 man-days on the disaster work. News of the manual clean up efforts were reported by newspapers and TV. Volunteer centres were set up in the polluted beach areas. They were flooded with inquiries from many people across the country. Free air and bus tickets to the polluted prefectures were provided. One main information source for. would-be volunteers was the Internet homepage set up by volunteer centres. The Internet, however, had not yet then spread widely in Japan, so that several citizen groups in Tokyo ran an information service by facsimile.

Many citizen groups and other volunteers participated in the rescue of birds coated with oil as well as in research on the impact of the oil spill on wild birds. NGOs undertook surveys and rescued some 1,300 oiled sea birds, including some rare species. The birds were cleaned and sent for release in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The total amount of volunteer work on this effort alone came to 800 man-days.

The disaster affected a wide range of economic and social activities. The damage caused by the oil spill included not only the costs of clean-up, but also the havoc wreaked on local fishing - in the pollution of fishing zones, suspension of fishing activities, and damage to marine resources. Another cost was the decrease in tourism to the affected areas.

Thanks to the combined efforts of residents, fishermen, volunteers and the Self-Defense Forces, most of the fuel oil was removed from the coastline. And it was an immense effort. In all about 56,000 kilolitres of combined oil, seawater and sand was collected - more than nine times as much oil as actually went into the sea. It is estimated that it will be some years before the ecosystem is fully restored. According to Japanese and US chemistry experts who surveyed the polluted areas, the decomposition of oil by sunlight and waves could take one to two years.

GEIC Studies Problems

The relatively young GEIC (then three months old) undertook a study of the oil spill. It had the cooperation of various nongovernmental organizations who had been involved in the clean up operations. Its goal was to try to see what had happened, and to try to see what might be needed in future disasters to improve management.

A number of failings in the management of the disaster came to light:

· There appears to be a strong possibility that the tanker Nakhodka broke up due to old age. The safety standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) specify that tankers older than 25 years and 30,000 deadweight tons or larger must have double hulls. Although the Nakhodka was actually 27 years old, its tonnage (19,684 DWT) exempted it from the regulation. The section which broke apart had been repaired in Singapore four years earlier.

· The spilled oil drifted for six days before it reached the coast. Because of extremely cold seas, the oil should have solidified, making the clean up easier. It didn't solidify because, unknown to those working in the clean-up effort, an antifreezing mixture had been added when the cargo was loaded. This showed the lack of quick response efforts. There was no system in place to have checked this, and made the information available to the clean up effort. And there was no system to monitor drifting oil.

· When the spilled oil was collected, it was mixed with a great deal of sand. Some chemistry experts said this was far too much; but there were no guidelines on how much fuel oil should be collected and how much could safely be left to decompose naturally. Other information on clean-up measures was lacking - as was basic data on coastal ecosystems.

· Tragically, five volunteers died during the clean-up process. Better health control guidelines for volunteers were needed - on, for example, maximum working hours in such cold weather. Better leadership in the management of the clean-up operations was clearly called for.

· There were also problems on distribution of information. A wide range of actors - government, local fisherman, volunteers, etc. -responded to the disaster. The news of the manual clean-up work was widely reported by newspapers and TV. But the media, for example, focused on problems on the Mikuni coastline - to where volunteers rushed; other sites also required attention. There were erroneous reports; crabs and offshore fish were not affected by the spill, but rumours that these marine products were polluted circulated among the public. Press reports also left the impression that the entire Sea of Japan was polluted.

In general, the activities of the volunteers were very effective. They could have been improved, however, by better information about which skills were needed where. Better chains of command were needed to improve management of the volunteers.

Based on the GEIC study, a proposal was made for better management of environmental disasters. For a quicker response to disaster, a new system is needed to clarify where responsibilities lie. The system should be headed by one senior decision maker, capable of integrating the work of the various authorities concerned, and empowered to order countermeasures to cope with such spills.

But the command function will also at times have to devolve on local municipalities over time, depending on the changing situation and the scale of disaster. The International Center for Disaster-Mitigation Engineering (INCEDE) at the University of Tokyo has a very useful model.

An Environmental Disaster Information Network should be established. The network should connect key persons: experts, officials of the central and local governments, citizen groups, and corporations with technology for environmental disasters.

Support measures against disasters need to be established, to aid in collecting information and providing it to citizens and organizations which need it. These should operate in ordinary time, not just in emergencies.

A centre is needed with responsibility for reporting correct information to the media, and preventing circulation of harmful rumours. In ordinary times, the centre could collect basic data on marine ecosystems and data on marine pollution caused by oil spills. It could also provide training of volunteers. Two kinds of trained personnel are required: coordinators of various volunteer activities, and people to work on wildlife rescue.

Spill in Tokyo Bay

GEIC was subsequently able to put the Nakhodka experience into practice a few months later when the Panamanian tanker "Diamond Grace" ran aground in Tokyo Bay on 2 July 1997. spilling about 10 thousand barrels of crude oil. Within six hours of the spill, a meeting of key persons was held at GEIC to decide what needed to be done to respond. The day after the spill, 3 July, GEIC published a special edition of its fax newsletter, InfoNet, informing people that, in this instance, volunteers were not necessary. Information was also provided about what to do with oil-affected seabirds. Systems were tentatively put into place in case volunteers should become needed, and general inquiries were answered.

GEIC is now one of the parties in discussions about establishing a Japan Environmental Disaster Information Centre, which could mobilize NGOs in a real-time response to future environmental catastrophes.

Work in Progress
A Review of Research Activities of the United Nations University
Volume 15, Number 2/Winter 1998

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