Managing operations

Operations to combat a major oil spill can require the mobilisation in a matter of days of tens of thousands of people from very varied backgrounds: civil and military servants of the State, civil servants and contract employees of local authorities, personnel from private companies, volunteers from near and far, individually or in groups, and their management over a period of several weeks to several months.

The vast majority of these participants have no previous experience in oil spill response. They must therefore not only be equipped, supervised, and given meals and accommodation, but must also be trained in a few hours to play their role and to take precautions to avoid causing additional damage through poorly carried out response actions.

Training responders

Whatever the quality of the procedures laid out in contingency plans, it is difficult to avoid delays and inadequacies in the first few days when setting up operations.

Negative images are promptly broadcast by the media, such as team leaders complaining about the lack of resources or the irritation of volunteers who feel useless and insufficiently supervised.

Temporary disruptions can also occur, such as excessive collection of lightly oiled sand saturating the waste disposal and storage chain.

More information

Organisational flowchart to assist in decision-making in the event of a spill



Clean-up worksite

Response to the Erika pollution

Response to the pollution from the Erika involved operations at sea and on land lasting for around 30 months, with an estimated total of around 400,000 man days of work. On the busiest days, the workforce reached some 15,000 people, not including volunteers, who were not recorded.

To manage the on-land side of operations, a zonal response centre, 4 departmental response centres (or permanent response centres) and 19 advanced response centres were set up, with interministerial coordination at the core.

Managing operations

Deploying an effective response may require several levels of actions, amongst which the allocation of responsibilities should be very clearly delineated. In France, three levels are generally distinguished:

• a general response unit: a single unit which coordinates the action

• zonal response units which manage response resources

• advanced response units which direct response teams and communicate information from the field.

Choice of response actions

This choice is in the hands of the response coordination unit, which is assisted by one or several scientific, technical and financial advisory groups.

Actions at the source • Stop or reduce the spill
• Make the vessel lighter (transfer contents into another vessel)
• Contain or recover the pollutant
• Disperse the pollutant
• Burn the pollutant if this will not introduce new risks for humans and the environment
Response at sea • Disperse in the water mass by spreading dispersants
• Contain with booms and recover using pumps and skimmers
• Trawl using skimming booms or vessels fitted with skimming arms
• Spread sorbents on the slick and recover using surface trawlers
Response by the shoreline • Act on slicks at sea close to the shoreline
• Protect sensitive areas of the shore using booms
• Direct drifting slicks towards areas of low sensitivity
• Retain slicks in affected zones to avoid the extension of polluted areas
• Contain and recover pollutant by the shoreline (same techniques as in the open sea)
• Disperse carefully, by limited spreading of dispersants, under ecological control
Response onshore • Set up clean-up worksites, with a good waste treatment chain
• Limit response on very sensitive sites, such as marshes, to what is strictly necessary
• Ban seafood sales and shoreline access where necessary
• Evacuate and treat the recovered waste
• When operations are complete, restore waste storage sites, altered access routes and soiled vegetation