Ten days after the small tanker Agia Zoni II sank in the Saronic Gulf, the decontamination of the marine environment has focused on what affects us aesthetically, rather than all of the petroleum and break down products, such as those that have sunk and now rest on the sea floor and those floating and moving along with the marine currents. These are a major source of pollution and are an entry point for toxic substances to get into the food chain. Moreover, unfortunately, the decontamination activities have been focused on the more popular beaches of Attica and not on Eastern Salamina – the most affected area that received the largest polluting load.
The Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation has been present in the area since the beginning, with a group of marine researchers monitoring and sampling the polluted sites, aiming to form an objective assessment of the extent of the disaster and of the way this type of oil disperses and diffuses into the seas under the specific temperatures and currents.
Our aim is to exert pressure so that the clean-up operations also collect the oil that is not directly visible, which is an equally important source of pollution. It is noteworthy that according to the experience of the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, now, almost 30 years later, a layer of petroleum by-products remains on the seabed of the region, which continues to be toxic and is still polluting ecosystems and fish stocks.
The priority for the Archipelagos Institute is to not let this wreck be forgotten as soon as the media attention fades, as was the case with Sea Diamond, which ten years later continues to pollute and has been classified as abandoned waste by the EU. National authorities have been making a great effort to convince us that the wreck no longer poses any danger and that we should not be concerned by it.
Our aspiration is for the destruction that the Saronic Gulf is currently experiencing to be a starting point for the development of an operational mechanism that will protect our seas from further disasters. It should be noted that since the beginning of this year, nine serious shipwrecks have occurred in the Greek seas, but fortunately these did not cause oil pollution or transport other dangerous cargo.
We should also stress that due to the lack of adequate planning and preparation, the decontamination workers are the first victims of this wreck. This is due to inadequate precaution measures and tools,but also the lack of knowledge of the risk they are exposed to and the safe practices to approach the materials they inhale and come into contact with.
For the past fifteen years the Archipelagos Institute has emphasized the absence of an effective Maritime Accident Management Mechanism to all relevant authorities and governments, but action has yet to be taken. Let us consider that this disaster was caused by the scattering of less than a thousand tons of crude oil in the sea, under ideal weather conditions during the tourist season, within the traffic control zone of the country’s main port, one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Situated in the same area are the majority of the country’s anti-pollution vessels, equipment, and most of the big towboats. Furthermore, the coordinating body of the Marine Environment Protection Directorate of the Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy, as well as private anti-pollution/clean up companies are based in the same area.
Under the ‘favorable conditions’ of the accident, the inadequacy of the existing response mechanism was confirmed. Let us therefore consider the consequences of a similar accident that could occur at any moment in the Aegean, for example in the Strait of Kafireas, between Euboea and Andros, or in the Kythera – Elafonisos Strait, or other similar high risk points. Through these narrow passes, about 250-300 oil tankers and numerous other ships with hazardous cargo (e.g. water soluble, toxic chemical raw materials whose recovery is impossible) navigate each month, with capacities that can exceed 120,000 tons. About 50% of them carry “flags of convenience”, which further increases the likelihood of an accident.
Therefore, the development of efficient mechanisms for responding to maritime accidents, utilising new technologies and existing know-how, as well as the existing potential of human resources from both the public and private sectors, is an absolute necessity. At the same time, there is a direct need to define traffic separation routes in addition to a traffic control mechanism throughout the Greek seas, especially the Aegean (and not cover only the main ports of the country, as is the case today).
These are considered self-evident measures that have been applied for decades in most areas of high maritime traffic and risk across the globe. Their absence in the Greek seas has characterised the Aegean as one of the most chaotic maritime traffic zones in the world, with a high risk of a maritime casualty.
Given the lack of direct resources from the Greek state, the Archipelagos Institute considers it necessary to set up a Marine Accident Prevention and Response Fund, which should be capitalized by refiners, oil companies, and all those involved in the processing, handling and storage of petroleum products. In addition, we feel it is essential that those who have an economic benefit from the activities, while simultaneously increasing the risk of accident, should be actively involved in the prevention and response process. It is therefore unfair to pass on these costs to citizens and the country, whilst these companies are investing millions of euros in actions of corporate social responsibility that simply improve their image. (For example, only two companies, Motor Oil and HELPE in 2015 and 2016, respectively, allocated a total of 44.5 million euros in corporate social responsibility and environmental investments, as they themselves claim).
In light of this great blow to the Saronic Gulf and the proven ineffectiveness of the state mechanism, the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation will continue to monitor the affected areas both in the shallow coastal zone and in the deepest waters, and to exert pressure until a substantial decontamination is complete.
At the same time, having previously developed (in cooperation with Greek research institutes and universities) an accident risk prediction mechanism in real time, as well as risk management proposals and a plan for the setting of traffic separation routes, we will contribute in every possible way with the aim of transforming the Greek seas from a chaotic sea area into a safe environment for citizens, biodiversity, as well as shipping activities themselves.
Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation