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BIODIVERSITY: Oil Spill Will Devastate the North Sea Warn Experts

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, May 14 2010 (IPS) - If an oil spill similar to that in the Gulf of Mexico were to happen in the North Sea, it would devastate the Wattenmeer, one of the most fragile and important biodiversity hotspots in northern Europe.

The North Sea, extending some 750,000 sq km, is one of the areas of the world with intense maritime oil and gas drilling. Some 600 platforms operate in the region around Britain, Denmark, Deutschland, and Norway.

In addition, the North Sea is crisscrossed by navigation routes – some 100,000 ships cross the region per year – raising the probability of an accident.

“It is a wonder that an oil spill of the dimensions of the present one in the Gulf of Mexico has not occurred here,” Carlo von Bernem, marine biologist and expert on oil pollution and coastal zone management at the German Institute for Coastal Research, told IPS.

Von Bernem said that the recent installation of hundreds of wind turbines along the German and Danish coasts increases the risk of an accident in the area. “An oil spill here would constitute an environmental catastrophe with devastating consequences for biodiversity,” he added.

The German North Sea offshore area between Denmark and the Netherlands, known as Wattenmeer, or Wadden Sea, is a fragile biological habitat, the only home to more than 4,000 animal species, and as much flora. The region is also seasonal stopover for some 12 million migratory birds.

In a nutshell, the Wattenmeer is a biological treasure. In recognition of this, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) included it in the World’s Heritage List in 2009.

The environmental consequences of an oil spill in the area would be as difficult to combat as in the Gulf of Mexico, von Bernem warned. “The tidal and geological characteristics of the area make a cleansing of an eventual oil spill extremely difficult,” he pointed out.

“The Wattenmeer is quite flat. This would impede the heavy ships used to absorb an oil spill,” von Bernem said. “You would have to use buckets and shovels to gather the oil. But because of the rapid rhythms of the tides in the area, you can do this only during very short periods of time.”

The Wattenmeer is an intertidal zone with large mudflat areas that are exposed to the air several hours per day between tides. “In such an area, you can cause more damage during the cleansing than the oil spill itself,” von Bernem said. “If you press the oil into the sediments of the mudflats, the oil’s decomposition will occur without oxygen, and will take longer than normally.”

Von Bernem said while the rules for maritime navigation in the North Sea are quite strict, the ‘’chances of a ship accident are high.”

Dieter Schmidt, director of the German coastal protection agency, also agreed that an oil spill in the German North Atlantic waters is most likely to occur by a leakage from a ship rather an accident in an oil drilling platform.

“We concentrate our urgency plans to fighting a leakage of oil caused by a ship accident,” Schmidt told IPS.

The German coastal protection agency started to function in 2003, following the stranding of the ‘Pallas’, a cargo ship that burned near the German North Sea coast in 1998. Although the ‘Pallas’ lost only some 90 tonnes of oil, the environmental consequences were enormous. Some 10,000 sea birds died in the accident.

Schmidt estimated that the risk of an oil spill at the only German drilling platform, the Mittelplate, operating offshore the Wattenmeer, “is very low.”

But other environmental experts complained that the North Sea suffers a slow-motion environmental catastrophe. “Every year, some 20,000 tonnes of oil spill into the sea,” Christian Bussau, expert on marine pollution for the environmental organisation Greenpeace, told IPS.

“Some 10,000 tonnes are illegally discharged by ships, the other 10,000 tonnes are the consequence of the normal operations of oil and gas platforms,” Bussau said. “These discharges and other forms of pollution make the North Sea one of the most contaminated maritime areas of the world.”

Bussau complained that even though the deep sea oil drilling applies the most best technical precautions in their operations, “they are not efficient enough to avoid regular spills.”

Bussau believes that stealthy spills “constitute a worse pollution than the one we witness now in the Gulf of Mexico’’. ‘’In areas extending 500 metres around all North Sea platforms, the sea bed is biologically dead,” he said. “There you can only find bacteria and nematodes, but no fish.”

“All industrialised countries of the world that have oil drilling platforms on the high seas use advanced protection mechanisms against oil pollution,” Bussau said. “But you never know whether these mechanisms are actually efficient, until it is too late. After the accident of the ‘Pallas’ and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico we now know that all our precautions were not good enough.”

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