Oil Spill

We’re an optimistic lot us humans. Or deluded. We kid ourselves that we’re the masters of our own cleverness and then we get upset when things break – or crash or sink. How could this happen? This is a once in 100 year event! Surely there must be someone to blame for all of this! “As a species we are clever at developing fabulous stuff and shipping it round the world but we just don’t spend much time or money on wondering about avoiding worst case scenarios when it all goes wrong. Especially in our ‘positive thinking’ obsessed culture; dwelling on the possibilities of failure and general disaster is for losers. We hope it goes well, close our eyes and cross our fingers.

The thing with oil spills though is that this approach doesn’t seem to be serving us very well. The problem with the ‘this is a very complex and unique situation which would only happen every now and again and we have to be realisitic’ approach, that Mr. Key is in favour of, is that it doesn’t help if the now and again is in your life time and you eat from and live by the affected beach.

New Zealand is a big weather, rough water island on the bum of the planet so it stands to reason that accidents will happen and weather will hamper attempts to remedy the situation. Help will be awhile coming. Anyone trying to catch boats in the Pacific will tell you that there is many a rust-bucket out there and that the rules for carrying hazardous liquids on land in those expensive brand new rigs – seem to be very different from the ones that apply at sea. Given this, it would seem prudent to have a fairly well stocked tool box on our own shores when the need arises. As it does – often. Since 1998 New Zealand has had 4 significant oil spills with a combined leakage of over 500 tonnes of fuel.

The Maritime Safety Authority boasts on its website of having over 12 million dollars worth of gear on our shores for cleaning up oil spills. I think we’ve just spent more than that on an upgrade of ‘fan zones’ in Auckland just in case more people want to watch a footy match. Given the income from oil surely the oil companies themselves could contribute more to having the highest technology available for cleaning up when it all goes wrong. $12 million seems woeful in comparison to the cost of environmental damage to fishing grounds and recreational areas.

How do you factor the real cost of getting it wrong? And that’s the other thing; I remember watching the attempted clean up after the Exxon Valdez and various other documentaries on oil spills as a kid (normal kids played pacman) and the gear all looks the same. In the age of the ipad is there really nothing more that can be done other than spray detergent and put some ineffectual booms out? There is little point in focussing entirely on the hows and wherefores of one underpaid and possibly underqualified sea captain running aground. That’s what government spin doctors will want us to focus on.

The oil spill that happened in the Coral Sea last year, came as a result of a ship being about 8 kms off course. From what I could understand, the captain was navigating with something akin to a primary school geography book. We can’t just put it down to ‘human error’ and then pretend it won’t happen again. It will. If a real education is not the ability to have all the answers but the capacity to form the right questions – then there is a lot more to ask about than simply who we should blame. According to the MSA risk assessment survey in 2004, Northland is three times more likely to suffer from a major oil spill than the Bay of Plenty ever was. What then are the right questions that need to be asked in order to either prevent or minimise the damage from the same thing happening here?

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