A few weeks or months after an accident occurs, or a little over a year
in the worst of cases, clean-up operations are completed and response teams
demobilised. There is no longer any visible pollution, except on sites where
the decision was made not to intervene and to leave nature to do the work
(natural clean-up). However, some ecological, epidemiological, financial
and legal questions may remain unanswered. What happens to the oil which
is not recovered? Is it a long term danger? Will the affected species, ecosystems
and the local economy fully recover or will any damages persist? Who will
pay compensation, when, to whom and how much?
Providing precise and swift answers to these questions is of paramount importance. Otherwise, facts and realities may be quickly submerged by fears and speculations from which the general public will draw their own conclusions. In the aftermath of a major spill, feelings run high. It has been known for demonstrators to flood onto the streets bearing placards and banners such as: “the polluter must pay!” and “never again!”.
Even in the early days of a spill, scientists and economists will be getting
to work on assessing the actual short and long term impacts. However they
need time to provide objective answers and it can take months or years to
publish the results. Until then all manner of speculation is possible, including,
of course, the more extreme interpretations favoured by some media. Such
speculations, whilst they are inevitable, do cause concern to all stakeholders.
However, each party involved has particular priorities according to the nature of their interest in the sea and the shore. Ecologists are concerned by the return of the affected species, of the natural balance of ecosystems and by the maintenance of biodiversity. Hotel and restaurant owners and shopkeepers worry about the image of the region and the return of customers. Fishermen and seafood breeders are preoccupied by being able to market their produce again and find customers. Consumers question the quality of the water, the beaches and sea produce. Answers have to be provided to each of these legitimate concerns. This requires hard work and time.
Naturally, the same information may be seen in many different ways by the different stakeholder groups, who may use it to demonstrate different points. Some environmental campaigners may want to demonstrate extensive harmful effects of even the most minimal damages to make the incident unforgettable and use the subsequent furore to catalyse drastic decisions about maritime transport. Some economic operators may want to show a maximum amount of damages to obtain the maximum levels of compensation. Other economic operators may have an interest in showing the impacted areas to be not so badly damaged after all in order to win back the trust of users and consumers.
The answers to the different questions asked depend on the type of oil, the characteristics of the sites affected, the species concerned, the circumstances surrounding the spill and the effectiveness of response. They are not always simple. They require time-consuming, delicate and costly effort.