June 18, 2003 – Protection of marine habitats and conservation of natural resources are widely regarded as integral elements of the territory's future economic and environmental stability. This belief and the issue of sustainability of U.S. coastal resources are the underpinnings of a five-day workshop under way on St. Thomas on the prevention and control of oil spills.
Sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard 7th District, the program is taking place at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort. Its focuses are on proper methods of response to such incidents and on providing information about such topics as the chemicals that may be encountered in a "damage-control" situation.
The workshop, which runs through Friday, has four major components:
– Providing an overview of information and misinformation regarding the function of dispersants chemical agents designed to enhance the transfer of oil from the water's surface in order to mitigate the environmental impact of oil spills. Dispersants do not remove the oil; rather, they break an oil slick into small particles which then disperse into the water where they are further broken down by natural processes.
– Focusing on ecological risk assessment in tropical/subtropical environments.
– Utilizing the participants' ideas, concerns and recommendations from the first two components to create a dispersant use evaluation "response tool" to guide decision makers in formulating responses to oil spills based upon resource concerns and tradeoffs.
– Presentation of the "response tool" to the Caribbean Regional Response Team and Area Committee for review and adoption or further development.
Monday's program covered dispersants and the consequences of not pre-planning for an oil spill. "There is always a penalty for not pre-planning," Charlie Henry, NOAA site and support coordinator, said. "For example, take a look at the damage done to habitats — more animals are being exposed to lethal and sub-lethal impacts."
The best response, Henry said, will be part of a contingency plan that includes such actions as:
– Looking at the well-being of all living things with a stake in the response, such as birds, shorelines, fisheries, corals and mangroves.
– Investigating such elements as cost and ecosystem recovery.
– Consulting local resource experts.
– Developing scenarios with other members of Area Committees.
Within such scenarios, dispersants play a big part. Applied correctly, these agents make oil less toxic and greatly reduce its concentration so that slicks don't spread as rapidly.
Dispersants work like detergents, Henry explained, reducing surface tension between the water and the oil. This "permits the oil to break into tiny droplets, which then degrade into a more naturally occurring substance," he said.
There is currently pre-approval by federal agencies for the use of dispersants within one-half mile of shore for Puerto Rico and within one mile of shore for the Virgin Islands. Limits may vary due to the proximity of coral reefs, marine habitats, etc.
Dispersants are not always the most reliable option for the treatment of oil spills. "It is generally recommended that dispersants be used when there is a definable, positive environmental benefit," Henry said. He condemned the use of such chemicals in a case in 1967 in which a vessel named the Torrey Canyon hit a reef and spilled six tanks of oil. The dispersants air-dropped onto the spill by Navy pilots turned explosive. "The solvents in this case were more toxic than the oil," Henry said.
He said that a more recently developed chemical dispersant called Corexit 952 has been found to be lethal. First banned in Jamaica, it has since been taken out of production.
For further information on oil spills, pre-planning and damage control, visit the NOAA Response and Restoration Web site and U.S. National Response Team Web sites.
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