Like any other island nation, the fortunes of Malta are inexorably tied to the sea it juts out from. The Mediterranean gives Malta 253 kilometres of shoreline which attracted nearly 1.8 million tourists in 2015 alone; a contribution of around 15% of the nation’s GDP. Local fishing netted 867 tonnes of fish in 2014, and a growing aquaculture industry added 101 million Euros to the nation’s economy.
These metrics aside, Malta is depending more with each passing year on desalination of sea water to supplement its diminishing ground water supply, and even seemingly mundane strolls around the beach, amateur fishing and swimming are crucial aspects of the national cultural fabric.
With the Mediterranean being such a crucial lynchpin, it makes a great deal of sense for the Maltese government to invest heavily in its safeguarding, and to some extent it has; stricter fishing quotas and complete treatment of sewage before discharge are two prime examples. But pollution remains a great and ever looming threat, especially that from oil.
The largest threat of a potential oil spill comes from ships at sea –a third of all international maritime traffic transits through or originates from the Mediterranean, and most of that is funnelled through the 80 kilometre wide Sicily-Malta channel. A large congregation of tankers also anchor in international waters just off Hurd’s bank, 12 nautical miles off the coast. Free from any tax, these tankers wait for oil prices to rise sufficiently before sailing to their destination ports and selling their cargo for a profit.
A less likely, but much more damaging scenario could involve a leak from an oil rig; although numerically few, some platforms are actively producing oil in the region. For instance, the Vega oil field, 20km south of Pozzallo in Sicily, churns out 2700 barrels per day. It’s also important to point out just how safe the platforms drilling Vega are. Besides being engineered to handle adverse conditions, including earthquakes up to 9 on the Mercalli intensity scale, they are brimming to the teeth with safety features like security valves that shut down the moment an anomaly is detected. Indeed, in nearly 3 decades of continuous operation, not one single drop has been spilled.
That being said, mishaps can still happen. So what would be a response to an oil spill? If left completely alone, the marine environment can, over time, break the oil down. In a couple of days, a third of the spilled oil’s mass is turned into gas by the sun alone. This makes the slick denser and more viscous, which allows bacteria and algae to stick to it. The algae assists in speeding up the degradation of the crude oil, although this process can take months.
The problem with that time frame is that oil usually ends up where the wind pushes it; which means that oil can wash up on large swathes of Mediterranean coastline after a number of days from virtually any point in the sea, with disastrous consequences.
The preferred way of intercepting a spill before it reaches the coast is to skim it with a boom towed by a ship. This skimmed oil and seawater mixture is then transferred into a collection tank. While effective, this method depends on calm sea conditions to be viable, and it can often take some time to get adequately equipped ships out to the area of the spill.
A potentially faster solution, often implemented by using aircraft, is to spray a dispersant over the spill. These chemicals reduce the surface tension between the oil and the water, allowing the oil to break into smaller droplets, which allows microbes to more easily degrade them. However, dispersants might increase the local toxicity of an area for some time, which is one of the reasons they are often applied away from fishing grounds, and their effectiveness diminishes over time, which means that an early response is crucial.
If assets are unavailable or far away, authorities might consider concentrating the slick with booms and setting it alight. While in-situ burning is surprisingly effective, with up to 90% of the oil being burned, it also produces large amounts of air pollution, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide.
The ability of oil to disperse over such a large surface of water is both its single greatest danger and it’s undoing; if the worst were to happen it’s unlikely that just one country would be affected, so many have contingency plans into place.
Most European nations have designated responsibility for an at-sea response to an oil spill, often to ministries of maritime affairs or defence. A slightly more complicated matter is who does the actual cleaning. While countries like Greece have a modest fleet of dedicated vessels owned and operated by the government, others like Italy and France have subcontracted the private sector.
A large number of private companies have started offering a large variety of oil spill response solutions in recent years; some are contracted by oil companies themselves, weary of the negative publicity environmental disasters garner in the age of social media. But their existence also hints at the inability of one nation to deal with environmental disasters alone, and the European Maritime Safety Agency has been building up an organized response fleet for the past decade. Malta is the homebase of two such vessels, the Santa Maria and Balluta Bay, which are both operated by local companies and can be mobilised within 24 hours. The ships are equipped with booms, a skimmer and a dispersant application system. Additionally, 25 tonnes of dispersant are also stockpiled on the island.
Other aspects of Malta’s oil spill response though have not been without criticism. For instance, a 2014 report by the Auditor General found that inadequate storage conditions have degraded some nationally owned equipment like skimmers and booms. However, the report also notes that generally, Malta has a sufficient “strategic and an operational framework to deal with cases of oil pollution at sea.”