Pollution fears rise around Svalbard

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A particularly senstive area of Svalbard was under threat of oil pollution this week, after a trawler grounded in bad weather in a remote northern area of the Norwegian-administered island group in the Arctic. On board the trawler are 300,000 liters of diesel oil that may start to leak.

Svalbard and its ice have long been especially vulnerable to any threat of pollution of its pristine Arctic waters. This photo was taken farther south of the site where the trawler grounded on Friday, and in much more favourable weather conditions. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

“One drop of diesel that makes a mark just the size of a coin is enough to kill a sea bird,” Sigurd Enge of the environmental group Bellona told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday. “Diesel oil destroys the layers of fat that protect the birds.”

The Norwegian trawler Northguider, based in Storebø at Austvoll, south of Bergen, was out shrimping when it grounded at Hinlopenrenna on Svalbard’s far north side just before the weekend. All 14 people on board were eventually rescued and taken on board a search and rescue helicopter that brought them safely to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement on the island of Spitsbergen.

The vessel, however, remained grounded on Monday with concerns rising that its fuel could spill into the Arctic waters that are home to both seafood and birds. Coast Guard officials believe the diesel will break down on contact with the sea. Officials at Bellona disagree.

“Whatever spills into the sea stays in the sea,” Enge told NRK. “Nor is it possible to carry out any oil spill prevention in the area. There’s no equipment to mop up oil in a sensible manner under the conditions there. As soon as the oil enters the sea, the damage is done.”

Enge also worries that the oil can freeze into the ice in the area. “It can keep lying there until the spring, and then we’ll have more pollution when the ice melts and wildlife returns,” he said.

Efforts were being made to salvage the trawler Northguider, which ran aground Friday in stormy seas and winter darkness on Svalbard’s far northern coast. PHOTO: Opilio

The environmental protection chief on Svalbard is also concerned, noting that the area where the trawler grounded in a severe winter storm is part of a high Arctic nature preserve. “This is an area that has a lot of seabirds in the spring and summer,” Morten Wedege of the local governing office (Sysselmannen på Svalbard). “It’s a resting place for walrus. There’s a lot of other marine life here, like seals and whales. It’s wildlife that’s especially vulnerable to oil and pollution.”

The Coast Guard’s largest vessel, named Svalbard, left its home port at Sortland Sunday, bound for the site of the grounding where its crew will attempt to board the Northguider and assess its damage. Nearly round-the-clock darkness at this time of year will make the work difficult, but the crew will also attempt to empty the trawler’s diesel tanks. If the vessel remains afloat, attempts would also be made to pull it off the rocks where it grounded and tow it south.

Asle Birkeland of the shipowning company Opilio that owns the Northguider is also in Longyearbyen to help plan the salvage operation in cooperation with the Coast Guard. “We’re also working to chart conditions at the site and gather all the data about the vessel so that the operation can proceed as painlessly as possible,” Birkeland told NRK.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund