Gas tanker detained as port investigates oil spill
By Eyleen Gomez and Brian Reyes
A gas tanker that caused an oil spill in the Bay of Gibraltar was detained by port state control and the Gibraltar Port Authority [GPA] on Tuesday as an investigation was launched into what happened.
The GPA activated its anti-pollution plan alongside the Department of the Environment early Tuesday morning following a report that oil had spilt into the sea as the liquefied petroleum gas carrier Gas Venus took on fuel a short distance from shore off the South Mole.
Initially large patches of heavy fuel oil drifted into the bay as port vessels deployed booms to contain and collect the oil at sea.
But by midday, some of it was washing up on shore in Rosia Bay and Camp Bay, forcing the Gibraltar Government to close the beaches as clean-up teams were deployed on shore to mop up oil before it was washed back out to sea.
The work was ongoing on Tuesday evening but the weather was not helping, with strong winds making for choppy seas.
There were no reports of any oil reaching the Spanish coastline and the GPA was in close contact with Spanish authorities, which deployed a surveillance helicopter late afternoon to assess the situation from the air.
John Ghio, the Captain of the Port, said there were two free floating patches off Camp Bay that were being monitored but which were too close to shore to facilitate easy containment.
On the beach itself, teams were engaged in manual clearance of thick, gloopy oil whose fumes could be detected across much of the south district.
Officials have not yet released details of the volume of oil believed to have been spilt but acknowledged that, even if it was a small amount in the context of the wider maritime industry, for Gibraltar this was not a minor spill.
"Quantifying the amount of oil released into the bay is not currently the main priority as this can be misrepresented at this stage of the clean-up process," a spokesperson for No.6 Convent Place said.
"This data will be gathered throughout and the final figures will be made available once the clean-up operations have been concluded."
The focus now is on the clean-up operation and the investigation into the causes, with Mr Ghio confirming the ship was currently detained pending the outcome.
Depending on the investigation, the vessel’s captain and operator could potentially face legal action in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle if they are found to have been at fault.
All other commercial port operations were halted while the clean-up was under way.
Environmental and conservation groups were quick on the scene as soon as news of the spill broke.
The ESG’s Janet Howitt arrived at Rosia Bay on her bicycle and was immediately hit with the pungent smell of oil.
With horror, she said: “That’s quite a lot heavy tarry oil that has come into Rosia Bay, Camp Bay and possibly Seven Sisters.”
Seven sisters is a protected marine environment area just south of South Mole that was badly hit by the OS35 spill just a few months ago.
“These beaches are going to be closed on the first of August which is peak summer bathing season.”
“Rosia Bay is an untouched piece of coastline of ours which is precious and now it is covered with thick black gunk.”
“That is still coming in and it will take ages for this to disappear and in the meantime it will really really affect the environment and it is horrendous.”
“This was not an accident, it was an overspill or something of this kind. We are bunkering 24/7, there is a huge amount of activity and the standards of oversight has to be 100% all the time.”
“So an investigation where the polluter pays needs to happen.”
“This kind of business is not just bad for the environment but also climate change and the sooner we change our supply from trading and dealing in oil the better.”
“I happen to live near here and as soon as I stepped out of my front door I could smell it. The fumes are vaporising. Some of the beachgoers might have to move away because it is nauseating and can give you headaches.”
“It is windy so at least there's some respite moving in along. But still, it's very, very sad that we are seeing it today.”
“Ironically, we were just releasing today a statement about sharing the joint relief of the community about seeing the back of the OS35 with no further impacts now in Gibraltar, so we genuinely felt that we wanted to thank the Port, the departments and agencies, NGO. So this is the last thing that we expected. I feel really shocked by it.”
Also on the shoreline was Lewis Stagnetto, a marine biologist and co-founder of The Nautilus Project, a marine conservation charity.
“The smell of oil is really, really strong,” he said as he surveyed the beach.
“And then all along the rocks, you can see really thick amounts of oil coming in and washing up on the rocks.”
“It's a fairly strong southwest. So that's pushing all of the oil that was at sea, onto the shoreline right now.”
Mr Stagnetto said personnel involved in the clean-up operation at sea were doing everything possible to contain the oil, but that the weather was not on their side.
“We’re very grateful to everyone who's out at sea in the current conditions attempting to minimise this damage,” he said.
“But unfortunately with the current weather conditions, I suspect there's very little that we would be able to do effectively.”
Mr Stagnetto said he was concerned about the longer term environmental impact of this spill, the latest in a series of similar incident.
He said “the black stuff” needed to be dealt with straight away because it was having a direct and obvious impact on marine life on the shoreline.
But it was the impact on phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, that really concerned him because of the wider impact it could have.
“So in the short term, what we're going to see is a loss of life on a lot of invertebrate species, and maybe even some vertebrate species like fish, you know, the benthic and that around the rocks,” he said.
“But what worries me more as a biologist is that with this type of wave action, what we're really encouraging the oil to do is mix within the water column.”
“And that is much more dangerous because research shows the effects of that oil actually span to decades.”
“So the effect of this oil spill will be measurable in the species that have been hit by this for at least the next 10 years.”
“And when you put that into context that only 11 months ago, on the other side, we had the OS 35, we're not giving the marine environment room to breathe with this frequency of oil spill.”
Mr Stagnetto stressed the importance of oversight of bunkering operations to minimise risk.
But he acknowledged too that in a busy port, this type of incident would always happen.
“It's something that as long as we have bunkering, we're going to continue seeing along our coastline,” he said.
He said the charity would continue to monitor the coastline and be ready to assist in any clean-up operation as soon as the weather eased and it was safe.
“So we've gone from monitoring in the sea to monitoring the shoreline. I would prefer that none of this would happen. We'd still be in the water, but unfortunately, this is what we're having to deal with.”
For beachgoers, the oil spill meant their day at the beach was ruined.
“When we came around the corner there was a strong smell of fuel,” said John Milanta, who was at Camp Bay with his granddaughter.
“The main problem that we've got swimming pool but it’s not the ideal place to go swimming in the afternoon, so we normally use the sea.”
“Now we’re going to be restricted [and] it's a bit worrying because it’s southwesterly winds and it's going to be like that for at least the whole week.”
“It's going to be quite bad.”