The vast majority of releases of hydrocarbons
into the marine environment can be described as chronic
pollution: permanent or semi-permanent discharges from either authorised
or illicit sources. Authorised discharges are subject to certain standards
designed to limit their impact on the environment in identified areas, and
are restricted to certain levels considered acceptable by national authorities
or international commissions. Illicit discharge can take on a number of
forms: exceeding the levels specified by the regulating
authorities, non conformity to product specifications, discharge in an unauthorised area...
Sheen in a stream polluted by hydrocarbons
There is not always an adequate capability and/or will to monitor or sanction the breaching of regulatory standards on discharges into the marine environment. Today the prevention of illicit discharge is more a privilege of rich countries than a worldwide reality. Many poorer countries have more urgent preoccupations than the monitoring and prevention of illegal discharges, starting from catering for the basic nutritional needs and physical safety of their people.
In addition to chronic pollution, accidental pollution also occurs: minor or major spills of oil, chemicals, organic matter or other substances. Accidents can be caused by negligence, design flaws, poor maintenance or human or mechanical errors and can be exacerbated by extreme weather conditions, high winds and strong currents.
Oil spills tend to be one
of the first examples of marine pollution that comes to mind owing to high
media interest and immediate visible, dramatic effects. Preventing and fighting
against oil spills should not be isolated actions following in the wake
of a major spill but rather should form part of an ongoing, long-term strategy
of continuous improvement in prevention of, preparedness for and response
to marine pollution of all types to promote cleaner oceans for ourselves
and for future generations.
This fight against pollution is no easy task. Banning all maritime transportation of crude oil is not a realistic option, nor would it eliminate oil spills.
Industrial discharge into a river
Effectively combating all forms of pollution depends first and foremost on understanding how pollutants are released into the environment and how they behave in that environment. The battle must be fought on many fronts to reduce the risk of spills. However, reduction will never equate to its complete eradication. When prevention fails there is no one unique response solution, but a multitude of possible response options amongst which the most suitable combination must be found.