There has been some recent news and commentary about Environment Southland’s response to a significant oil spill at the scene of a truck accident at Springhills in 2015.
The coverage has insinuated that Environment Southland “covered up” the incident. This is not true, there was no thought or attempt to cover up the situation. In fact, the accident was reported in the Otago Daily Times, at the time, but not The Southland Times.
However, Environment Southland did not advise the local community of the situation. We recognise this was not good enough, and we acknowledged this when we met with some community members several months later. Since then we have improved our response and communication protocols, equipment and training.
On 30 October 2015 a Southern Transport Co Ltd truck crashed at approximately 693 Springhills Tussock Creek Road. The truck was carrying an estimated 23,700 litres of transformer oil. The skin of the truck had been compromised in the crash and the oil escaped into Sharks Tooth Creek, a tributary of the Makarewa River.
The police and fire service were on the scene first. The closest Environment Southland compliance officer was out in the field, and about 40 minutes from the scene. The officer completed their work as quickly as possible and arrived at the scene one hour later, at about 4.20pm.
On arrival at the site, the extent of the spill was not clear to the compliance officer as most of the oil had already escaped from the scene. The small tributary had been dammed with dirt and baleage and this had captured some of the oil in this area. Soon after, the captured oil was removed using several sucker trucks.
Southern Transport had also put several oil absorbent booms and pillows in place. The attending Environment Southland compliance officer assisted them on the day to deal with the oil spill.
Environment Southland staff continued to monitor Southern Transport clean-up efforts and had regular meetings with the manager of the company over a number of weeks.
Environment Southland subsequently investigated and assessed the incident in accordance to the same criteria as any other incident its officers attend. It was determined that Southern Transport had a strong defence to a prosecution, therefore the matter was not taken to court.
The truck company was unable to foresee the crash of the truck, on hearing of the escape of the oil it took full responsibility for the clean-up; the company’s estimated costs of clean up were in excess of $250,000.
Southern Transport spent over 1000 hours of Southern Transport’s and contractors’ time cleaning up the initial spill and subsequent releases from captured oil from the plants and banks of the river. The company used over 120 oil absorbent booms, 600 oil absorbent pads, diggers, tankers and vacuum trucks in its response.
Section 17 of the Resource Management Act makes it clear that anyone who causes a spill is responsible for cleaning it up. Southern Transport met their responsibility.
As is the case with all vehicle crashes, the police ran an investigation into the cause of the crash. Environment Southland ran an investigation in the discharge of the oil to the environment.
Oil toxicity and impact on the environment
The oil was identified as Hydrotreated Light Naphthenic Distillate, which is transformer oil. A Material Safety Data Bulletin by Exxon Mobil Corporation provides technical information, which concludes that it is a non-hazardous oil and is considered practically non-toxic to humans.
The oil is considered unlikely to cause significant adverse effects to aquatic life. However, shortly after the spill occurred, one dead duck was discovered. It appeared to have been affected by the spill, which was the probable cause of death. We know of no other adverse effects following the incident.
Meeting with community members
Environment Southland was contacted by Mr Warren MacPherson some months after the incident requesting a meeting, which he and some other members of the local Springhills community attended. This meeting was taken seriously by Environment Southland with the chief executive, a director and senior staff attending.
Community members aired their concerns, which included not knowing whether the contaminated water would have been a risk for stock or people wading in the waterways Environment Southland acknowledged it had not met the community’s expectations in this instance and invited Mr MacPherson to provide input on the council’s plans to make improvements, which he duly did.
Environment Southland held a debrief, which was attended by the contractors, Southern Transport and the fire service. Many lessons were learned from this incident and as a result Environment Southland has stepped up its level of specialist training and equipment. Additionally, changes have been made to our response protocols with regard to incident escalation and communication.
What we have learned
We learned that even though oil spills of this magnitude are not common outside of marine areas, we need to be well prepared for them.
Being well prepared means staff have the specialist training and equipment they need to manage any given situation as effectively as possible.
We also now have clear protocols that trigger escalating the significance of an event when appropriate, and this includes communication protocols. Communications range from Facebook posts, to direct contact with community representatives, and/or media releases, depending on the severity and extent of an incident. In a significant event assistance may be sought from Emergency Management Southland.