St. Lucia Park Barricaded Against Shipwreck Spill

RICHARDS BAY, South Africa, September 19, 2002 (ENS) - Parks workers from the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal have reinforced a natural barrier at the mouth of the St. Lucia River to keep oil spilling from a grounded cargo ship from fouling the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park. Conservationists say this latest oil spill should be a signal to world's governments and shipping companies to improve standards of ship maintenance and crew competence.


The Italian cargo ship Jolly Rubino hard aground off the South African coast (Photos courtesy Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park)
The Jolly Rubino is rolling in the waves spilling oil eight kilometers (five miles) south of the Umfolozi River mouth. Oil aboard the Italian-flagged ship is burning and salvage crews are battling the fierce fires raging for more than a week.

The Italian-flagged ship ran aground Thursday afternoon September 12 while en route from the South African port of Durban to Mombasa in Kenya when it lost power after an engine room fire broke out.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesman Jeff Gaisford said that staff of his agency plus personnel from the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marine and Coastal Management, and the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park Authority, have done "everything they can to prevent any infiltration of oil and chemicals into the Umfolozi River and St. Lucia estuary by closing the mouth up with sand and floating booms."

The oil threat to St. Lucia has been "contained at this time," park officials say, and while beaches around the Jolly Rubino are closed to the public, beaches at St. Lucia are open.

Oil containment booms have been placed at the mouth of the Umfolozi River, key mangrove inlets in the Umfolozi Estuary, and the Umsunduze River. The back channel that connects the Umfolozi and St. Lucia estuaries has been closed with sand, and park workers plan to breach the barrier regularly to prevent stagnation of the water.

The ship was carrying toxic chemicals including phenol, alpha-naphthylamine, isopropanol and acetone. An estimated 40 of these containers were washed overboard in heavy seas and are starting to drift ashore, according to park officials.

Members of the public have been advised to steer clear of any drums or containers on the beaches. Due to fear of chemical contamination, the public has been told not to collect or eat any type of shellfish from Richards Bay to Cape Vidal.

Wildlife personnel have established a bird cleaning and rehabilitation station at St, Lucia, and they say that oiled crocodiles will be treated at the St. Lucia Crocodile Centre.


Waves rock the damaged vessel, widening cracks in her hull.
Pollution monitoring of the shoreline, offshore areas and estuaries, as well as bird populations is underway. If oil threatens to contaminate the Umfolozi Estuary sand flats, park personnel plan to scare the birds away.

Dispersant will be used on offshore oil, and absorbant material will be used to mop up oil in the intertidal areas. Once the threat of oil pollution is over, whatever oil deposits remain will be cleaned up, and the artificial sand berms placed to prevent pollution will be removed, park officials say.

They are planning for ongoing ecosystem monitoring to track recovery of the toxic and flammable chemicals washing ashore.

The vulnerability of this World Heritage internationally protected wetland has prompted calls from international environmental organizations for governments to better protect their coasts from shipping accidents.

Tony Frost, head of WWF-South Africa, said,"At this point, and thanks to the sterling efforts of all involved, it appears as though an environmental disaster of enormous proportions has been averted."

"However, this highlights once again the absolute necessity for our government, and in fact all national governments, to strictly enforce shipping regulations. We cannot afford to continue learning from our mistakes. There must simply be no more mistakes," Frost said.


Clownfish in the St. Lucia Marine Reserve
WWF is calling on shipping nations to introduce urgent measures at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to improve the inspection regimes for oil and chemical tankers, and to review the performance of the classification societies responsible for ensuring sub-standard ships are eliminated.

National governments must undertake a comprehensive risk assessment of their coastlines and identify Particularly Sensitive Seas Areas in their waters, Frost says.

These sensitive areas need special protection through the IMO because of their ecological, economic, cultural or scientific significance, and their vulnerability to harmful impacts from shipping activities.

Urgent action by governments worldwide is needed to review and improve ship maintenance and crew training and competence, the WWF says. The organization wants to see "complete transparency" about what is being shipped and and notification to governments whose coastlines that might be affected by hazardous cargo.

WWF believes that the full environmental damage, including damage to marine and coastal habitats as well as bird populations and local livelihoods, must be assessed and recognized, and compensated by the companies that caused the damages.

Australia's marine wildlife is at risk of contamination in what the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says is "the likely event" of a major oil spill along the coastline.

"In the last six weeks alone, there have been ship groundings on the Great Barrier Reef, in western Australian waters and in the Torres Strait that could have resulted in major spills," said Mick McIntyre, IFAW's Asia Pacific director.

Speaking at SpillCon 2002, an international oil spill conference in Sydney this week, McIntyre welcomed the recent release of Australia's National Guidelines for the Development of Oiled Wildlife Response Contingency Plans, but said these guidelines depend on the goodwill of state governments to adopt them.

Based on IFAW's experience managing the world's only global oiled wildlife response team, McIntyre sees "an urgent need for a mandatory and standardized national response system for wildlife affected by marine oil spills."