Picture this... a boat has sunk in Fiordland. Oil and diesel are reported to be leaking. Exactly what role does Environment Southland play?
The Council has a trained and experienced team equipped for precisely that eventuality. It's a difficult job, with 3,500km of coastline to keep tabs on, much of it remote and bordering national parks and sensitive conservation land.
Spill Response Team conducts an equipment deployment exercise at Awarua
Bay. Booms act as a barrier to contain oil or fuel in the event of a spill.
There's a lot to consider in responding to such an event. There's getting people and equipment to the site as well as organising the food, shelter and basic services to help them stay there.
Working from accurate information is critical, because invariably, there's a certain amount of confusion and misinformation at the beginning of any response. If reports are sketchy, someone will be tasked to fly over the scene and make a trained assessment of the situation.
Once a clear picture has been established the true response can be generated. For smaller incidents, especially involving diesel that evaporates quite quickly, spills could be left to disperse by themselves if the conditions are right. At the other end of the scale, Maritime New Zealand could become involved. The highest level of national response is a Tier 3 incident, last seen in the south when the Tai Ping grounded in Bluff Harbour in 2002 and before that when the Dong Won 529 hit rocks off Stewart Island in 1998.
For small scale spills, all equipment needed is in Southland. There are booms to create a barrier, skimmers that remove oil from the water's surface, sorbents to soak up the oil and dispersants to break it up. The equipment belongs to Maritime New Zealand and is stored at Bluff so it can be quickly moved to wherever it's needed.
The oil response team is largely drawn from Environment Southland and Port Maintenance from Bluff, with assistance from other agencies. DOC, an oiled wildlife specialist from SIT and iwi all contribute. The team is well-drilled with an experienced core including five members of Maritime NZ's National Response Team.
Many of the Southland team also got valuable experience in the Rena response off Tauranga.
Sometimes, the skipper of the vessel is one of the key people involved in a marine oil spill. The response team tries to liaise with them as early as possible so they can prevent further spillage and contain what has already escaped.
The Southland oil spill response team is usually activated between 12 to 20 times a year, and there is usually an average of two sinkings annually.