Cayman prepared for oil spills

If an oil spill were to threaten
Cayman’s shores, the news is good.

According to the Department of
Environment’s Deputy Director for Operations Scott Slayburgh, Cayman is
prepared.

“We have one of the nicest
collections of oil spill equipment in the region,” said Mr. Slayburgh, who is
the designated on-scene commander for oil spill response.

The Department of Environment is
responsible for dealing with marine based oil spills, while other departments
and agencies deal with chemical spills and land-based petroleum spills.

Along with a national oil spill
contingency plan that is regularly updated, Cayman’s responders are also
keeping their training up to date.

“We have hired the National Spill
Control School,
which is housed on the A&M campus in Corpus Christi,
Texas, on a few occasions to do responder
training courses in Grand Cayman and in Cayman
Brac,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

“And we have sent a few key staff
who would be spill managers on their courses in Texas. My initial training was there, but
also through the International Maritime Organization.”

Mr. Slayburgh explained Cayman is
party to conventions that require it to have oil spill cleanup capability.

“The International Convention on
Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation 1990 has been extended to
the Cayman Islands and obligates us to provide
a reasonable ability to respond to marine oil spills,” he said.

“This convention was written into
local law through the Merchant Shipping (Marine Pollution) Law (2001 Revision).
We are party to a list of other conventions related to oil spills, but the OPRC
is the only one dealing with preparedness.”

He said the Cayman government funds
the stockpile of equipment the DoE maintains on the three Islands
and for the training of responders.

But, there is another more
practical reason Cayman keeps prepared to deal with an oil disaster: because it
is a good thing to be in a position to be able to minimise damage from an oil
spill.

Oil spill 101

Crude oil can be broken down into
light components like gasoline and telulene and heavy components like asphalt.

“Crude oil comes out mixed up, but
when it reaches the water’s surface the sun evaporates the light parts and
leaves the rest,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

He said gasoline and diesel are
high in toxicity – they react with oxygen, a quality that makes them good fuels.  Although they dissipate relatively quickly,
while they are in the water they can do a lot of damage. Any life form, from a
fish or microscopic organism that lingers in it may die or suffer a multitude
of effects from exposure.

“On the other hand, heavy oil and
other oil spill leftovers are not that toxic, but they persist in the environment
for years and years,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

Occasionally, tar balls wash up on
Cayman’s beaches, which Mr. Slayburgh says are caused by ships illegally
discharging oil many miles offshore.

Among the many problems they pose,
they may be eaten by turtles, or baby turtles may crawl through them.

“We have noticed that we are
getting far fewer ‘mystery tar balls’ than we used to,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

“It is impossible to know where
they come from.”

In Cayman, the chronic spills tend
to be the highly toxic ones, of diesel fuel and engine lubricating oil, but
they don’t last long.

“Sometimes the team can’t get to
the spill site in time to remediate the problem,” he says.

The cause is often poor boat
maintenance.

“While spills here are nothing like
the huge catastrophe in the Gulf, you could call it death by a thousand cuts,”
says Mr. Slayburgh.

And while there was legislation
drafted recently with respect to the maintenance of commercial vessels, Mr.
Slayburgh notes that draft bill has never been passed.

“It’s no fun to prosecute, we’d
want to prevent this instead,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

Cayman equipment

“When it comes to an oil spill you
need to decide what you are trying to save and what are you willing to
sacrifice,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

“These decisions are based on net
benefit.”

“We have a couple of miles of oil boom
that could for instance protect the central mangrove wetland from a spill in
the North Sound,” he continued.

“If it was a bigger spill and we
had to make choices, that would be the very first priority to protect.”

If it were deemed necessary to
place a boom across the Little Sound, Mr. Slayburgh says there are sufficient
staff at DoE to do quite a bit in a short period of time. On Grand
Cayman, at least, there are enough people around to deploy in case
of surprise spills.

If oil were coming in across the
reef in South Sound, a cascading boom system would be used to guide it to a
central collection area.

“We have skimmers, which do not
collect a lot of water along with the oil, which makes it much less of a
challenge to find a place to store all the oil collected,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

In addition, the Mosquito Research
and Control Unit planes can be converted to spray dispersant.

“The stuff we have is the kind the
US Coast Guard told BP to start using,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

He says that again, it’s a judgement
call on whether to use dispersant.

“If the oil is heading toward a
priceless treasure and you can save it using dispersant, well, the decision
needs to be made,” he says.

“But we do have criteria for when
you should not spray including in very shallow water, for example.”

Modern dispersants don’t sink the
oil to the bottom, rather, they break down the oil and are quite effective in
that not a lot needs to be used for them to work.

“Toxicity  is all about concentrations,” noted Mr.
Slayburgh

“Think about parking a car in a
closed garage, vs. parking it outside. It’s the same car, the same carbon monoxide
that is coming out of the tailpipe, but outside it is dispersed to a greater
dilution. The dispersants spread the oil out so widely it loses its toxicity.”

Where the buck stops

“The cost incurred to clean up a
marine oil spill will generally be funded by the polluter (i.e. the polluter
pays),” said Mr. Slayburgh.

“On occasion we have a mystery
spill, which is commonly tar balls from the illegal discharge of passing
vessels and for which there is no identified polluter. These clean ups are
funded by government.”

He said that in a scenario of a
tanker grounding the CI Government would spend an initial outlay to get the
response started, but under the CLC and Fund Conventions there are provisions
for reimbursement and payments for not only the oil clean up, but for private
business losses and environmental restoration.

Mr. Slayburgh says when it comes to
dealing with a major oil spill, the closest call Cayman had occurred a few
years ago when a large crude oil tanker lost engine power just east of Grand
Cayman and started drifting toward East End.

“In fact, we are categorised as a
high risk area, not so much because of the volume of traffic passing by Cayman,
which is moderate, but because most of our shoreline is deemed environmentally
sensitive,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

For example, mangroves would take
25 to 50 years to recover from an oil spill; unlike sandy beaches, which can be
cleaned up much more easily.

The thing about marshland and
mangroves is that they are nearly impossible to clean.

“Sometimes you can do marsh burns,
but again, you have to do a net benefit analysis,” said Mr. Slayburgh.

“Generally, you want
to preserve a habitat, less so the individual creatures that inhabit it.”