U.S. Agency, Coast Guard Help South Korea with Oil Spill Cleanup

By Cheryl Pellerin

Washington — A team of U.S. specialists has lent its expertise to the Republic of Korea after a crane barge collided with the motor tanker Hebei Spirit, releasing nearly 11.4 million liters of crude oil into the Yellow Sea 10 kilometers off the nation’s west coast.

The spill happened December 7, 2007, but the cleanup effort, which could take a year or more, is just beginning.

The largest oil spill in the East Asian country’s history has affected more than 160 kilometers of beaches, rocky shoreline and aquaculture sites bordering Taean County and points north, 150 kilometers southwest of Seoul.

The Korean Coast Guard coordinated the initial cleanup — helped by tens of thousands of citizen volunteers who took up shovels to remove thick surface oil from beaches — and accepted an offer of help with the spill from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT

A four-member U.S. technical assistance team arrived in Seoul December 13, 2007. It included Joseph Loring, Mark Gregory and Jonathan Grimes of the USCG Pacific Strike Team in California, and Edwin Levine, scientific support coordinator from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Office of Response and Restoration in New York.

“In heavy seas, a tow rope broke between a tug and a barge it was pulling and the barge drifted into an oil tanker that was anchored,” Levine told USINFO. “It happened during a storm, so there was nothing [the Korean Coast Guard] could do to stop the oil during the first days of the release.”

A swarm of media greeted the U.S. team outside Seoul Kimpo International Airport, Levine said, possibly seeking a judgment about the Korean Coast Guard’s technical performance in the first days of the oil spill response. But, he added, the agency did not do anything wrong.

“They were in a bad situation; there was no magic bullet. There were things we would have done slightly differently, but nothing radically different,” Levine said. “The amazing thing was the outpouring of public support. The first weekend we were there, they had 40,000 volunteers. By the time we left, more than 350,000 people had come down to help.”

In a 27-page report by the U.S. technical assistance team to the Korean Coast Guard, “Considerations for Response to the MT Hebei Spirit Oil Spill,” the authors praised initial cleanup efforts.

“The people of Korea, under the management of [the Korean Coast Guard], were performing an astonishing feat removing the oil that had contaminated their shores,” they wrote, adding that, in their observations, the country’s efforts “far exceeded the team’s initial expectations, which were based upon news reports.”

U.S. ASSISTANCE

The Korean Coast Guard briefed the U.S. team, which afterward visited oiled beaches, shorelines and aquaculture sites, then surveyed the affected zone from the air.

The U.S. team’s resulting report covered 17 areas for consideration by the Korean Coast Guard and addressed cleanup options on water and on shore, aquaculture, trajectory modeling of the oil spill’s path, waste stream management, oiled vegetation, submerged and buried oil, oiled wildlife rehabilitation, health and safety guidance, seafood safety and environmental assessment and restoration.

Other considerations included cleanup endpoints — deciding “how clean is clean,” Levine said, “and when to stop the cleanup” — and moving from an emergency response to long-term project management in dealing with the oil spill and environmental restoration.

“They’re going to be cleaning this up for a year, easily,” Levine said. “One of the things we coached them on is to start preparing to look at this not as an emergency but as a long-term project.”

Levine — who since 1987 has responded to dozens of incidents, including the largest U.S. oil spill, involving the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, which released 41.6 million liters of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — also compiled a list of technical resources for the Korean Coast Guard and others involved in the cleanup.

USCG and NOAA have proposed future meetings or training sessions with the Korean Coast Guard on spill-response topics, to be hosted by the USCG Pacific Strike Team in California.

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