RIGA - Several tons of diesel were spilt into western Latvia's largest port Aug. 22. The cleanup is thought to have been largely successful, but the oil industry's effect on Latvia's coastal waters continues to cause concern.
The diesel, "probably nine tons," was spilled while being loaded onto the tanker Stripe in Ventspils, said Felikss Klagiss, head of Riga's Marine Control Division.
Southwesterly winds ensured the fuel remained within the harbor walls, so it posed no threat to a popular nearby beach, he said. Not being a heavy fuel the diesel remained on the surface, and so was removed with the aid of absorbent booms. But 74 kilograms remained irretrievable in rocky and shallow areas.
The ship's owner, Norway-based Hektor Shipping, has been ordered to pay 16,374 lats ($26,842) in fines and expenses arising from the accident, Klagiss said.
Klagiss expressed confidence in Ventspils port's accident management systems, but said accidents are inevitable, wherever oil is transported.
"Ventspils' handling of oil is safe, though cooperation could be better. Their reputation for environmental protection is important to them," he said.
Consulted by The Baltic Times, Dr. Jonathan Wills, of Environmental Consultancy and Research, Scotland, warned that fuel spilled in sheltered areas of water, such as the harbor where some diesel remains, may cause long-term, chronic damage, "less dramatic than oiled seabirds but potentially more serious."
As for bad-handling by the ships themselves, there are no guaranteed prevention methods, said Klagiss.
"This was a very old single-hull ship."
In this respect Wills emphasized the importance of rigorous and frequent inspection of ships "to weed out the rust buckets."
Janis Ulme, of Latvia's Environmental Protection Club (affiliated to Friends of the Earth International) endorsed the port's actions.
"It was quite well managed. Ventspils are doing as much as they can on environmental issues," he said.
"Their plans for gaining international environmental certification show a good attitude. But we're still concerned about chemical transit through Ventspils."
The Latvian environmentalists have favorably compared Ventspils' handling of the accident with the Butinge oil transit platform, which opened last year a few miles inside Lithuanian waters to considerable criticism from environmentalists in both countries.
Oil transfer in the open sea, as happens at Butinge, is inappropriate, said Klagiss, who suspects Butinge was the source of several small pollution incidents on Latvia's coast last fall. In the event of an accident, he said, absorbent booms are only effective in calm seas. Lithuanian cleanup vessels are stationed several hours' journey away, even assuming good weather conditions, he added.
"In open seas it's not possible to collect spilled oil. Nothing is absolutely safe. Our Lithuanian colleagues don't want to see this," said Klagiss.
"As with Estonia, we generally have good cooperation with the Lithuanians, but if we ask about Butinge, they shut up. We'd like to discuss these things."
Lack of cooperation between Latvia and Lithuania on accident management is what most concerns the Environmental Protection Club about Butinge, said Ulme.
"How will the two states cooperate in the event of a larger accident?" he asked. "Butinge damages the Latvian coast, not the Lithu-anian coast."
Wills confirmed Ulme's view that the Baltic Sea is in a "catastrophic" ecological situation. The southern shores of the Baltic are under stress from "extensive, chronic pollution," Wills said, so spills should be minimized.
Butinge exacerbates a more general problem besetting the Baltic - illegal discharging of oil contained in ballast and bilge water, said Klagiss. Because Butinge has no facilities for such waste, ships are likely to dump at sea, he said.
"Ships can't discharge tank-washing waters or dirty ballast at Butinge. But if they keep it on board they can't take on so much cargo and make so much money," Klagiss said.
Ventspils has helped prevent this kind of pollution by charging low waste-management fees, he added.
The Environmental Protection Club's attempts to address these issues will include an annual day of events around the coast, Sept. 3, entitled "Prayer for the Sea." This will be followed by clean-up events in the second week of September.
Klagiss would like greater help from environment officials in other Baltic countries such as Germany and Sweden.
"Our inspectors have to learn from our own mistakes," he said. "But other countries have good systems we don't know about. We just get to hear of them talking to ships' captains."