Prevention of environmental damage at sea requires effective response equipment and preventative procedures. We develop and practise the use of both on a regular basis.
Oil spill response at sea means preventing the spread of oil that has ended up in water, controlling its progress, and recovering it. Such prevention must primarily be carried out as close as possible to the source of the damage, as prevention is the most effective and the damage is the smallest.
The most efficient method is to prevent oil or chemical spillage from the vessel at the outset, if possible. After entering the sea, oil forms on the water surface a slick whose thickness depends on the quantity and quality of the oil. Some types of oil and chemicals can fall to the bottom, remain in the water under the surface, or evaporate into the air.
Oil can be recovered or disposed from the sea using three different response methods. Oil can be chemically dispersed by dispersants, incinerated or recovered mechanically using different devices. It has been agreed that only mechanical recovery methods are used in Finland.
Different brush skimmers are typical equipment for recovering oil. They are used both as large, fixed systems built inside ships and as smaller mobile devices. In addition to recovering oil, it is also important to be able to slow down and steer its spread. This will allow more time for prevention measures and protect sites with valuable natural values. This is done by using booms. Booms floating in the sea can be built into barricades up to several kilometres long. A boom installed between two vessels can also be used to sweep oil.
Air surveillance plays an important role in oil spill response operations. The majority of the oil contained in an oil slick is located at its thickest point, which is difficult to detect from a vessel on the sea surface. The sensors of a surveillance aircraft and crew members trained to assess oil levels can identify the thickest point and guide the response vessels to the correct location.
Ice conditions make oil spill response more difficult. Finland has developed oil-spill response methods for ice conditions in cooperation with other northern countries. Recovery equipment suitable for ice conditions has been built on the vessels of the Finnish Border Guard and the Finnish Navy.
Finland adheres to the principle which states that the party that caused the damage compensates for the costs incurred in the prevention. These are recovered from the party causing the damage through insurance policies and international funds. If the party that caused the damage remains unclear, the costs will be reimbursed the State.
Prevention of chemical damage is considerably more difficult than oil spill response, as some chemicals do not form a recoverable film on the sea surface. Chemicals can also react with water or other chemicals. We develop the capacity to respond to chemical damage from vessels in cooperation with other authorities, and take into account such needs in future equipment purchases. Actions during chemical spills from vessels require special technology and training. It must be possible to overpressurize response vessels in order to operate in an area containing hazardous chemicals. The vessels must also be equipped with a chemical recovery tank.
In the Finnish Border Guard’s ChemSAR project, we prepared operating models for marine chemical accidents in which lives must be saved from a chemically hazardous area. The operating model is largely suitable for use in response to chemical spills from vessels also.
The backbone of the prevention of maritime environmental damage is state-owned multi-purpose vessels. The vessels have their own daily tasks, but they include built-in oil recovery systems installed for accidents. All state-owned oil spill response vessels are able to start response operations and recover oil independently.
The largest recovery capacity and the fastest response time are on the response vessels of the Finnish Border Guard (3 vessels) and the Finnish Navy (3 vessels). In addition, private response vessels operate throughout Finland that maintain oil spill response preparedness in accordance with service agreements signed with the Border Guard. The Government of Åland has one oil spill response vessel.
The fastest vessels for response missions are the border guard vessels, two of which are constantly on patrol. One of the Navy’s response vessels is always ready to head out in four hours.
In addition to ships capable of oil spill response, other vessels and boats may also be used in an operation. They can be used to, e.g., operate booms and their anchors; transport personnel, supplies and waste; and, where possible, recover oil with mobile recovery systems. The Finnish Border Guard owns a significant amount of equipment needed for oil spill response, stored in warehouses around the Finnish coast.
In the event of a major oil spill from a vessel, Finland can also request response assistance from neighbouring countries. There are dozens of oil spill response vessels throughout the Baltic Sea region. The Helsinki Convention between the coastal states of the Baltic Sea defines the principles according to which assistance can be requested and provided. The fastest way to obtain response vessels is from our neighbouring countries Sweden, Russia or Estonia, whereas surveillance aircraft can come to help quickly from the southern Baltic Sea.
The number of vessels suitable for a chemical spill from a vessel is significantly lower. Finland has two vessels (the Finnish Border Guard’s Turva and the Finnish Navy’s Louhi) that can carry out a response task in the event of a chemical vessel accident. The vessels can operate overpressurized in a hazardous area, and they are equipped with chemical recovery tanks. In addition, the Border Guard’s patrol vessels Tursas and Uisko can operate in a hazardous area under certain restrictions.
Actors involved in the prevention of environmental damage must be able to coordinate their activities seamlessly, so the resources can be utilised efficiently. Consistent situation awareness is useful in the planning and execution of an operation.
BORIS, administered by the Finnish Environment Institute, is a joint situation awareness system of the authorities involved in oil spill response. BORIS was introduced in 2013 and is approaching the end of its technical service life. The application will be upgraded in cooperation between the Finnish Border Guard and the Finnish Environment Institute. The new system is expected to be available at the end of 2021. The new system, with its more extensive features, should be in use in the summer of 2023.