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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Pirates and Oil Pollution: Hijacking the High Seas in the 21st Century

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IMO exhibit poster: 2,000 Somali pirates are hijacking the world's economy.

Piracy and maritime trade: Not just a 17th century problem anymore. Credit: Doug Helton/NOAA.

What do pirates, greenhouse gases, ballast water, radioactive wastes, and oil pollution all have in common?

They are all issues the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is dealing with. While in London for an IMO meeting, I am working on oil pollution issues, but during breaks in meetings I had a chance to walk around and look at some of the other work going on here. Piracy, for example, is a big concern, and the IMO keeps a database on piracy events worldwide.

USS Philippine Sea sailors approach a life boat to rescue crew members from the MT Brilliante Virtuoso near Yemen.

Sailors assigned to the USS Philippine Sea approach a life boat to rescue crew members from the Liberian-flagged motor vessel MT Brilliante Virtuoso. The crew of Brilliante Virtuoso abandoned ship near Yemen due to a fire aboard the vessel. Credit: Raynald Lenieux/U.S. Navy.

Pirate attacks have a potential for oil spills and other environmental damage in addition to obvious concerns about the safety of ship crews and loss of property. On July 6, there was a pirate attack on an oil tanker off of Yemen that resulted in the tanker catching fire. Fortunately the early reports seem to indicate that the fire was extinguished without the loss of the oil cargo, and the U.S. Navy ship USS Phillipine Sea safely recovered all crew members.

Oil pollution issues being discussed this week at the IMO meeting include dealing with oil that has sunk beneath the ocean surface, burning surface oil to remove it during spills, potentially polluting shipwrecks, and responding to oil spills in ice and snow conditions.

Countries also have an opportunity to present case histories on recent response efforts. We had a great presentation the other day about the collision and sinking of the container ship Chitra off Mumbai, India, last August. That involved a large oil spill, hundreds of lost containers, dozens of leaking chemical tanks, and a huge salvage operation.

Hopefully I’ll never have to deal with such a complicated case, but I’m glad that the IMO provides a forum for discussion and sharing of lessons learned so that we can have a head start if such an incident happened in U.S waters.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division. The Division provides scientific and technical support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spill responses. The Division is based in Seattle, WA, but manages NOAA response efforts nationally.

One thought on “Pirates and Oil Pollution: Hijacking the High Seas in the 21st Century

  1. We need oil whether you like it or not! This green utopia is not going to work now because we do not have the technology! We support careful drilling along the Gulf coast of Florida because there are no better more efficient or cheaper choices. Environmental groups are the reason why our latest oil spill was so severe. When you force companies to be miles off shore then how can they properly manage a spill? Futhermore, why wasn’t Lousiana given booms from the Federal government that they were begging for week after week?
    As the majority, (without a motive other than prosperity for all) oil is a necessary evil.
    Furthermore, there is a huge difference between real “Science” and an “ideology with Science Fiction”. Let’s seperate them kindly!

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