While people seemed to have forgotten the oil spill from the Greek-registered MV Amorgos that occurred off Kenting on Jan. 14, 2001, another oil leak took place on Dec. 24, this time from the Maltese cargo ship Tzini, which went aground off Suao in eastern Taiwan.
Soon after the ship's oil tank burst open and started leaking, seriously affecting the local fishing industry and marine environment, the Ilan County Government's Environmental Protection Bureau issued a fine of NT$1.5 million (US$46,000) and prohibited the ship from moving. Regardless of the final impact of the incident, there is still room for improvement in how we respond to it.
As Taiwan is located in the middle of a main transportation hub in East Asia and tens of thousands of oil tankers and cargo ships pass alongside the coast of Taiwan each year, the nation is at high risk of suffering marine pollution.
Since the Amorgos incident, similar accidents have taken place almost every year. To name a few, in October 2005 the chemical tanker Samho Brother capsized off the coast of northern Taiwan, in July last year the Indonesia-registered cargo ship Dewi Bunyu sank and caused a banana oil spill near Taipei Port and an unidentified oil spill incident occurred close to Lanyu Island.
In other words, the recent Tzini incident shows that there are no guarantees that similar incidents will not occur again.
Given the sensitivity of the marine environment, there is an urgent need to learn how other countries have dealt with similar catastrophes. Through investigation and analysis, a "sensitivity map" of the Taiwanese coast must be drawn up -- showing coastal topography and scenery, marine habitat and life cycles and nearby marine economic activities -- to allow for seasonally adjusted response measures. At the same time, we should rethink and if need be alter traffic for shipping lanes which pass through sensitive areas.
This would be best achieved jointly by coastal, water and environmental protection agencies.
Most marine pollution incidents resulting from oil spills can to a certain extent be controlled if intervention is made early enough. The Amorgos drifted for more than 10 hours before running aground, and the Tzini also lost engine power and started drifting. They ran aground because intervention did not occur early enough.
If Taiwan were equipped with a 24-hour air and marine radar system to monitor the coastline, as well as towboats on standby to assist vessels in difficulty, the follow-up to an oil spill would not be so onerous.
On the day the Tzini incident occurred, government officials were able to ensure prompt and appropriate response by dispatching workers and deploying oil containment booms to prevent the spill from spreading. But the following day, no measures were taken to control water pollution. There are different types of oil booms: small-size ones for operating at harbor, 30cm ones for near-harbor waters and 60cm ones for more distant waters.
Given the big waves encountered off the east coast of Taiwan, small oil booms are insufficient to contain oil spills. In the case of the Tzini spill, the authorities should therefore have considered using oil-absorbent sheets, oil-absorbent socks or other alternatives to reduce the pollution load and mitigate the environmental threat to the Neipei Harbor and the nearby Tingchih fishing ground.
Based on the experiences of the Tzini and the oil spill incident that occurred near Lanyu Island, authorities should purchase more pollution-control equipment for use in remote areas and on the outlying islands. This equipment should also reflect idiosyncratic marine conditions and environmental sensitivities.
As the highest authority protecting the Taiwanese coasts, the remit of the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) is limited to preventing smuggling and stowaway incidents. Its mandate fails to cover water pollution control efforts.
Moreover, its boats are not designed for marine pollution prevention. The CGA should purchase anti-pollution equipment, large-size tugboats or barges and participate in the design of pollution-cleaning boats. Because the airborne police is under the direction of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), the CGA should also look at how it could reinforce its airborne monitoring systems.
Training and educating personnel is also a basic requirement. In recent years, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has sent staff from the CGA, different government agencies and local governments abroad for training and has held workshops and joint drills for the navy and the air force.
However, due to high personnel turnout, trained staff often get transferred from pollution control to other areas. High-ranking officials who are sent abroad for training will often request better remuneration as a result, and many files -- such as those related to the Amorgos -- are still classified.
All of this has resulted in greater difficulty to learn from past incidents. Consequently, oil spills and marine incidents are more often than not dealt with by inexperienced officers with few resources to turn to.
The nation should follow the example of the Canadian coast guard, which uses senior staff and that of other countries, which have established agencies specializing in marine pollution control and prevention.
Given their lack of knowledge about chemical tankers, CGA personnel made the mistake of shooting at the chemical tanker Samho. As an ocean country, Taiwan should conduct in-depth research on the sea.
Marine and environmental studies should be given the respect they are owed, otherwise the nation will be helpless when it is confronted with another oil spill incident. Numerous cases have shown that a sound response is the best way to prevent marine pollution.
Chiau Wen-yen is a professor and director of the Institute of Marine Resource Management at National Taiwan Ocean University.
Translated by Lin Ya-ti
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