Oil spills - Philippines, Indian Ocean and Lebanon

Feature Story - 2006-08-24
Oil is harmful to the environment every step of the way. It leaks from pipelines, spills from ships, creates smog in our cities, and is heating up our planet. Marine ecosystems already stressed by over fishing and destructive fishing practices, toxic pollution and climate change are now taking big hits from recent large oil spills.

A Filipino fisherman stands ankle deep in oil washed up on the beaches near his home.

[ Jump to: Effects, Clean up, Map, Philippines, Indian Ocean, Lebanon. ]

It also has to be said that while these recent dramatic spills are making the headlines, oil spills actually occur every day.  Every year millions of gallons of oil enters the ocean from routine ship and car maintenance, off shore oil drilling operations and ship spills.

Effects of an oil spill

While the size of a spill is obviously important, the amount of damage done can depend even more on other factors like the type of oil spilled and the location of the spill - as well as temperature, wind and weather.

Oil can have a smothering effect on marine life, fouling feathers and fur. It is a toxic poison that birds and mammals often ingest while trying to clean themselves. Fish absorb it through direct contact and through their gills.  The fumes and contact with oil can also cause nausea and health problems for people in affected areas.

Even when the oil does not kill, it can have more subtle and long lasting negative effects.  For example, it can damage fish eggs, larva and young - wiping out generations.  It also can bio-accumulate up through the food chain as predators (including humans) eat numbers of fish (or other wildlife) that have sub-lethal amounts of oil stored in their bodies.

More on the effects of oils spills from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Clean up (mitigation)

©Greenpeace/Oerlemans - Attempting to clean up the oil spill in Lebanon.

A rapid and well-resourced response to an oil spill is vitally important.  However, it must be acknowledged that a real 'clean-up' in the sense of recovering all the oil and getting the beaches back to normal, is not possible.

Normally to prevent oil from spreading over sea surface they use booms (to contain the oil in polluted areas), and then use skimmers to suck up the oil and pump into a receiving tank.  But the response to oil spills is an extremely difficult and sometimes despairing task.

Booms only work when the waves are small. Even in ideal conditions, with all the equipment and all the experts deployed immediately, recovery of more than 20 percent of the original oil spilled is never practical.  Most of it either gets to the shore, or is incorporated into sediments and the seabed, or evaporates.

Once the oil hits the shore, various types of mechanical removal are needed.  But some techniques cause damage themselves and, for some very sensitive areas, vigorous clean up techniques can cause more damage than the oil itself.

Major oil spills since 1960

(map courtesy of Lastingnews.com)

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Long term clean up and support for affected communities is often complicated by a lack of accountability.  Often, financial responsibility is limited to the ship owner, while the large multinational oil companies that own the cargo escape responsibility.

However, at least in the case of routine accidents, the oil companies have international regimes that can be called upon to provide financial resources to help, but this is not the case for spills caused by war where often access is difficult due to political problems or the presence of munitions and any financial help is left to donations from governments and non-profit organizations and whatever the UN and others can scrape together.

Recent spills:

Indian Ocean

Source: On 15 August, about 470 km (290 miles) from the coast of India, the Japanese operated Bright Artemis oil tanker collided with a smaller cargo ship it was attempting to assist.

Amount and type: About 5.3 million litres (1.4 million gallons) of crude oil.

Area affected: The spill occurred hundreds of kilometres from land, so substantial impacts on inshore and coastal environments are unlikely.

The effects of 'at sea' spills are less understood than the more obvious effects seen when an oil spill washes up on shore, but could include oiling of offshore seabirds, impacts on marine mammals and turtles and toxicity to organisms occupying surface water layers, including the eggs and larvae of many fish species.

Situation summary: A serious incident, but largely overshadowed by the disastrous spills in the Philippines and Lebanon.


©Greenpeace/Gavin Newman. Mangrove Roots and new shoots coated with Oil from the sunken Petron-chartered single hull vessel oil tanker in Nueva Valencia, Guimaras Island. Philippines.

Source: Solar I, an oil tanker chartered by Petron Corp., the largest oil refiner in the Philippines, sank in rough seas.

Amount and type:  About 200,000 litres (53,000 gallons) of bunker oil in the initial spill.  The tanker is sunk in deep water, making recovery unlikely and the ship an ecological time bomb with an additional 1.8 million litres (475,000 gallons) of bunker fuel on board.

Area affected: Roughly 320 km (200 miles) of coast line is covered in thick sludge.  Miles of coral reef have been destroyed and 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of marine reserve badly damaged.

Situation summary: The Philippines' worst oil spill.  The government has asked for international assistance to clean up the spill.  However, long-term and possible irreversible damage to the environment and livelihoods of people is likely.

As Joseph Gajo, a local marine reserve caretaker, is quoted as saying, "My fear is all the mangrove trees will die. If the mangroves and coral die, this will affect fishermen."   According to Guimaras Governor Joaquin Nava, 25,000 people are already affected or displaced.

Our ship, the Esperanza, is in the area.  We will assist the Philippines Coast Guard in a visual survey and impacts assessment, as well as transport clean-up containment equipment and relief goods donated by the ABS-CBN Foundation and friends of Greenpeace.


Images from the Jieh oil spill in Lebanon

Source: On 13 and 15 July 2006, Jieh coastal power station, 28km south of Beirut was bombed by the Israeli navy.  Possibly also oil leaked from an Israeli war frigate hit by a missile.

Amount and type: Between 11 million and 40 million litres (3 - 10.5 million gallons; 10,000 - 15,000 tonnes) of heavy fuel oil has leaked into the sea.

Area affected: Due to winds blowing from the South West to North East and water current movement, the oil spill was partly carried out to sea and partly dispersed along the coast. The pollution is estimated to extend at least 150km (90 miles) off shore, and the oil has hit a 150km stretch of coastline extending even into Syria.

What is and should be done: Oil needs to be recovered from impacted beaches and from the sea's surface.  There are reports and satellite images that show there is some oil offshore, but because aerial surveillance is not currently possible, the amount and extent are not fully known.

In order to get a complete assessment of the extent of the spill, as well as getting equipment and experts to the scene the air, land and sea blockade needs to be lifted.  Oil recovery with safe and secure storage facilities are needed which will help to mitigate the impacts.  A full environmental damage assessment programme needs to be implemented.

Greenpeace environmental impact assessment teams in both Israel and Lebanon are helping gather information needed to deal with the environmental cost of the war, including this spill.

A toxic carpet of heavy fuel oil up to 10 cm thick is suffocating sea off the Lebanese coast. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of Fuel Oil poured into the Mediterranean Sea following the bombing of the Jieh power plant on July 13 and 15. This has contaminated up to 150 km of the Lebanese coast north of the plant; however the full extent of the spill has yet to be fully assessed as aerial surveillance is still not possible due to an air and sea blockade.

Watch video

Situation summary: This is a significant spill and will have lasting impacts. Heavy fuel oil is persistent in the environment and a significantly large amount of it has washed up onto shore.  Containment and clean up was initially impossible because of the war.  These factors make this a particularly nightmarish spill.

Initial coastal clean up could take 6 to 12 months.   The tourism and fishing industries are particularly hard hit, and one UN spokesperson has been reported as saying the damage could last "up to a century".

How you can help

Efficiency and renewable energy can help us reduce our dependence on oil - the only real way to stop oil spills.  Click here for tips on reducing your own energy use.

Marine reserves strengthen ocean ecosystems - making them better able to withstand and recover from environmental disasters.  Sign up as an Ocean Defender to help create a network of protected areas covering 40 percent of the world's oceans.