Butinge's biggest oil blunder

  • 2001-11-29
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis and Bryan Bradley
VILNIUS - The Butinge offshore oil terminal has been giving details of the third major oil spill in its two years of operations, which occurred in the early hours of Nov. 23. Crude spilled into the Baltic Sea when a sub-sea hose at the floating-buoy terminal apparently tore open.

Rescue services collected a total of 12 cubic meters (nearly 10 tons) of oil off the Lithuanian coast in a three-day clean-up effort. Special aircraft were also used to spray biological dispersal agents on the oil sheens. The slick moved to within 10 kilometers of the Lithuanian coastline near Palanga but did not reach the resort town's popular sandy beaches.

The thin slick was estimated at 1.5 kilometers long and 400 meters wide.

"Butinge's administration has to answer for the accident, which simply adds to the list of ills related to their bad work," Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said during a Nov. 27 interview on Lithuanian public radio, in a clear reference to the U.S. energy group Williams International, which operates the oil terminal (see related article, p. 8), which is, together with a refinery at the town of Mazeikai and a pipeline, part of the huge Mazeikiu Nafta oil complex.

Some observers are starting to blame Williams for holding back information. On Nov. 27, speaking at a press conference, Social Liberal MP Rimas Valciukas, expressed concern at the investigation panel's failure to disclose the exact amount of oil that entered the marine environment.

"The administration of Mazeikiu Nafta is deliberately holding back this data. It is deliberately misleading both the public and the rescue services," he said.

Mazeikiu Nafta has the equipment to make precise calculations of spilled oil products, he added.

Mazeikiu Nafta said it was still too early to estimate how much crude had actually been released.

Operations at Butinge have been halted, pending an investigation of the causes of the spill. Divers disconnected the faulty hose, which was taken to Klaipeda on Nov. 27 for analysis by Mazeikiu Nafta officials and independent experts.Williams officially confirmed the oil spill was first discovered at 1:43 a.m. local time during the loading of a Norwegian tanker, the Catherine Knutsen.

The spill was finally neutralized with the biological agent Simple Green, which also doubles as a non-toxic household cleaning product.

"On Nov. 23-25, we made about 30 flights with AN-2 planes, spraying Simple Green from them. The oil was liquidated," said Vytautas Juknevicius, director of Simple Green Baltic, proudly. "Simple Green does not harm the environment."

Brazauskas ordered the creation of a special group to investigate the accident, which coincided with a visit to Lithuania of Margot Wallstrom, European commissioner for environmental protection.

"Unfortunately, the Baltic Sea is very polluted and such accidents take place quite often," she said.

"Ms. Wallstrom seemed satisfied with how we dealt with the problem," Lithuanian Environment Minister Arunas Kundrotas said.

This was the third and largest oil spill in Butinge's short, troubled history. Two other spills took place on Dec. 6, 1999 and March 6, 2001.

The previous one occurred when a line connecting another Norwegian tanker, the North Pacific, to a buoy snapped, causing about three tons of oil to spill into the marine environment. Some of the resulting slick reached Latvian waters. Much of it was collected by the Lithuanians. No oil was observed in Latvian waters this time. Latvia lies just a dozen kilometers north from Butinge.

In March, about 3 tons of oil spilled into the sea when a pumping hose broke under extreme weather conditions. Negotiations are still underway with Latvian authorities over compensation for that incident. Latvia is demanding 5 million litas ($1.25 million) from Williams for damages caused to the environment.

A Palanga court served James Scheel, Mazeikiu Nafta's general director, a fine of 10,000 litas for the March 6 spill.

The Lithuanian prosecutor general's office said they were investigating the Nov. 23 incident to ensure security measures were being properly imposed at Butinge.