Removal of oil from seas, beaches nearly completed; cleanup of spill enters next phase

The next phase is more complex, and requires trained personnel and specialised equipment. - ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): With the removal of oil from the sea and oil-soaked sand from affected beaches largely completed, the authorities are moving to the next phase of the cleanup of a 400-tonne spill.

This phase, which is expected to take around three months, entails cleaning up of oil remnants in places that are not easily accessible, such as rock bunds and breakwaters, where oil could be trapped in crevices or deeper below the sand.

Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said at a joint ministerial press conference on June 24 that this next phase is more complex, and requires trained personnel and specialised equipment.

The final phase of the clean-up operation will involve the removal of tar balls - small blobs of hardened, coagulated oil mixed with sand - using rakes and sieves.

Public areas will reopen progressively after the cleanup work is done, Ms Fu said, adding that the hope is to reopen less affected areas earlier, like certain stretches of East Coast Park.

She noted that even after a beach has been cleaned and re-opened, swimming and water activities can resume only after water quality has gone back to normal. Water samples will be collected and tested to assess if the water quality has returned to pre-incident levels and remains consistent for about a week.

On June 14, Netherlands-flagged dredging boat Vox Maxima hitting a stationary bunker vessel Marine Honour at Pasir Panjang Terminal after suffering a sudden loss of engine and steering control. The incident caused oil from one of Marine Honour’s tanks to leak into the sea and stain coastlines at East Coast Park, Labrador Nature Reserve, Keppel Bay, the Southern Islands and Sentosa.

More than 700 personnel from the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), National Environment Agency (NEA), National Parks Board, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) and private organisations have since been deployed to aid in the clean-up efforts and more than 3,400m of containment booms have been laid.

Giving an update on the cleanup, Ms Fu said of the next phase: “We think that three months is a good gauge, but we are getting ourselves ready for surprises.

“Even as we clear the beach and shoreline, oil remnants at sea may still wash ashore. There could also be secondary contamination from the cleaning of other areas. So we will need to continue with the regular cleaning of beaches even as we embark on more specialised cleaning,” she added.

With prevailing Southwest Monsoon conditions likely to continue over Singapore for the rest of June and short thundery showers expected over parts of the island on most days, the weather is likely to impact cleanup operations.

For example, storm surges may bring oil remnants in the sea back to shore, Ms Fu said. On the other hand, rain, coupled with certain tidal conditions, may help to flush the remaining oil on land back out into the water.

She said the Government is also mindful of keeping workers safe, as they will have to navigate rocky terrain that may be slippery. Precautions will also be taken when cleaning up bio-sensitive areas during this next phase, she added.

Specialised cleaning at Sentosa’s Siloso beach has already begun, and the Singapore Civil Defence Force has deployed a Rapid Response Fire Vessel to the affected area in support.

The cleaning of selected rock bunds at East Coast Park beaches will start in the coming days, with more difficult clean-ups at Sentosa Cove and Labrador Nature Reserve to be carried out over the coming weeks.

“We are working with the oil spill consultants to deploy the most effective methods for cleaning while minimising cleaning contamination to surrounding areas,” said MPA, NEA, NParks, National water agency PUB, the Singapore Land Authority, Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and SDC in a joint statement.

To date, about 550 tonnes of oil-soaked sand and debris from affected beaches has been removed and sent to toxic waste treatment facilities for safe treatment and disposal.

Marine Honour is currently anchored off the western petroleum anchorage. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUIMarine Honour is currently anchored off the western petroleum anchorage. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Damaged vessel

Meanwhile, MPA will start to remove the remaining oil left onboard bunker vessel Marine Honour, which was damaged during the June 14 incident, said Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat.

This is so the Singapore-flagged vessel can be towed away for repair.

There are about 400 tonnes of oil left in Marine Honour’s damaged tank, and another 800 tonnes of oil stored in other undamaged tanks.

The removal operation is expected to take one to two weeks, Mr Chee said.

As the remaining fuel in the ruptured oil tank may be contaminated, it will be sent to licensed toxic industrial waste collector Singaport Cleanseas for processing.

Marine Honour is currently anchored off the western petroleum anchorage and a 35-tonne oil load Current Buster system is on hand to respond to any potential leaks as the oil on board the vessel is removed. The system, which is towed by two vessels, collects contaminated seawater and sieves oil out through a pump. The oil is then collected by skimmers.

Mr Chee said Singapore’s government agencies have also been in regular contact with their counterparts from Malaysia and Indonesia since the beginning of the June 14 incident, and they stand ready to assist Singapore’s neighbours.

“The oil spill situation remains dynamic,” Mr Chee added. “Some oil remains dispersed within the water column. So we will have to continue to closely monitor the situation at sea, including to watch out for oil that may resurface and float into, and affect, our coastlines.”

He said Singapore has a well-established set of standard operating procedures (SOP) for oil spills, and it conducts oil spill response exercises every two years. The last one was conducted in 2022, with the next exercise planned for October this year.

“The quick response and capabilities of our agencies are due to the strong interagency co-operation and collaboration built up over the years,” Mr Chee added.

“For this incident, our SOP has been effective. And our agencies, industry partners, and volunteers have done well.”

Specialised crew from Oil Spill Response Limited flushing oil on the rock bund at Sentosa's Siloso beach with water pumped from the sea. - PHOTO: MPASpecialised crew from Oil Spill Response Limited flushing oil on the rock bund at Sentosa's Siloso beach with water pumped from the sea. - PHOTO: MPA

Other impacts

Ms Fu said on June 24 that the air quality at the affected beaches has been within safe levels, including on June 15 when the oil spill first washed up to shore.

Information on air quality of affected beaches is updated daily on NEA’s website, she added.

To date, Singapore’s fish farms, which are located in the Johor Straits away from the spill also remain unaffected by the oil spill.

SFA has provided absorbent pads and canvas sheets to the fish farms as part of precautionary measures, and twice daily food safety tests indicate that local fish are safe for consumption, Ms Fu said.

Singapore’s drinking water also remains unaffected.

On business affected by the oil spill, Ms Fu said the Government is in touch with them and closely monitoring the business impact.

Mr Chee said the cost of the measures taken after the oil spill, as well as the resulting economic losses and environmental damages, can be assessed for claims.

He noted that under international and local laws, the owner of the bunker vessel has strict liability for the incident, which means it is liable for the pollution damage even if it is not at fault.

Hence, Marine Honour’s insurer. British Marine, has set up a third party contact to receive claims from affected parties. Mr Chee noted that the owner of Marine Honour retains the right to take recourse action against third parties for its pollution liability.

While there is an $8 million limit to the claims that can be made against British Marine, claims exceeding this amount can be submitted against an international oil pollution compensation fund, which has a higher limit of $362 million, Mr Chee said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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