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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Prognosis: Oil Spills Inevitable

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Faith Yondo, editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, about the possibility of preventing disasters such as the Braer in the future. Yondo says that while nations are moving to impose stricter regulation on tanker operations, large spills are inevitable as long as we want to ship and consume oil.


CURWOOD: It may take years to assess all the damage from the Braer oil spill, and for its lessons to have an impact on shipping regulations. But one lesson of the tanker disaster is already clear -- current clean-up technology just can't deal with a spill in the sort of raging seas in which the Braer foundered. Faith Yondo is the editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report. I spoke with her shortly after the vessel had broken up.

YONDO: Normally when oil spills, there are certain ways you can clean up, certain response options. The problem with the spill in the Shetland Islands, and this really is a very severe spill because of this, is there, the weather prohibits any use of mechanical recovery equipment. So what they've used is dispersants, which is a common technique in the UK, that's the first line of response. And so the chances of them recovering any oil probably aren't very great in that situation. These techniques have limitations, as we're seeing in the Shetland Islands. You can't use booms and skimmers when you have thirty feet, forty feet, sixty feet seas, they just won't work. And so that's a problem, it's definitely a problem, and that's an area that everyone's trying to work, is there a good way to clean up, and so far no one's found an answer, there's no answer at this point.

CURWOOD: Are we valuing safety enough when it comes to oil spills?

YONDO: I would say yes, I think there's sort of a misperception on the part of the public that you can prevent oil spills, and my feeling is that you can, you can take precautions against them, but the fact is, as long as we're transporting oil by tankers there is a risk of a spill. And there's really nothing that can be done to -- there are things that can be done, but there is nothing, even environmentalists that I've talked to concede that you're going to have oil spills. The only way you get rid of spills is if you stop transporting oil, period. And I don't think as many conservation measures as you could put in, you would ever get to that point, because we live in an industrialized society. And so the public, the choice that the public is offered with, do you want to stop being dependent on oil, do you want to stop putting gas in your cars, do you want to stop having, putting, using fuel oil in your homes, and if they're willing to say yes -- which I'm not -- if you're willing to say yes, and everyone else is willing to say yes, then fine. And if you want, you know, in a sense we're all part of the problem, in the fact that we are all dependent, so . . .

CURWOOD: Well, I'm wondering -- what is acceptable risk here? What would it cost to cut the risk here of spills to one-tenth of what we've seen the last three years, three major spills -- what would it take to turn that to three major spills over thirty years? One every ten years instead of one every year, is what we're looking at now. Not to eliminate . . .

YONDO: It is about that, that's, that's, what you're saying is just not correct. Usually there are two or three major spills a year. We keep, there are spills every day. There are a lot of huge spills that could have turned either way and could have been a complete disaster. There are tankers that get into trouble in the middle of the ocean and sink to the ocean floor. And in, this kind of widespread severe environmental impact is rare. It does happen in one or two large spills a year. For example, last year there was a spill off the coast of Mozambique, there was the spill in Spain, and then there was the spill that absolutely got no coverage whatsoever in Uzbekistan, where eight million gallons, eighty million gallons of oil spilled, that's four times what we're talking about now in the Shetland Islands. That got no coverage whatsoever because it was in Uzbekistan. And that probably caused some severe damage. And so you have, what you tend to see, what we tend to see in the statistics is you have two to three large spills every year, and then everything else is a medium to a small spill, which probably, usually don't cause much damage, though not necessarily so, depending on the incident.

CURWOOD: And in your view, little if anything could be done to reduce these spills.

YONDO: No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, what can be done is already starting to be done, and I think you continue to see it done. You start looking at issues of, one of the biggest things you can't control is human error and weather, so then the debate starts switching towards tanker design, exclusive zones, restrictions on tankers traveling in bad weather conditions.

CURWOOD: But the sum and substance, even with all those changes, not a whole lot could be done to reduce these spills.

YONDO: Even with all those changes, you're going to see spills. It's inevitable that we're going to have oil spills.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Faith Yondo is editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, published in Arlington, Massachusetts. Thank you.

YONDO: Thank you.



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