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Largest-ever oil cleanup exercise in Svalbard

It was a great day for a massive oil spill in Svalbard.

If that statement seems at odds with reality, then so was the largest-ever exercise deployed here to clean up the simulated spill from a cruise ship last week in September – in some aspects, at least.

Text by Mark Sabbatini/Icepeople, pictures by Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk, NTB Scanpix.

The weather was unseasonably warm and calm, and a few ships equipped to handle spills just happened to be in the area.

But in this instance, participants said, doing it right was far more important than doing it real.

(Article continues below the picture)

An oil spill exercise participant sprays specially treated bark chips designed to soak up oil over a shoreline in Isfjorden. Foto: NTB Scanpix Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk

 Photo: Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk, NTB Scanpix

“It’s nice to have an exercise in these conditions, but in real life when (something) happens it’s probably not in this weather,” said Alf Arne Borgund, an operations manager for the Norwegian Coastal Administration who co-led the simulated cleanup at sea aboard the Coast Guard’s Barentshav during the main part of the exercise. “If you do enough exercises you are ready and prepared when conditions are bad.”

Lessons learned

Not everything was put to the test under emergency conditions – the Barentshav, for example, deployed to the scene at half its maximum speed to avoid taxing the engines. But there were plenty of perilous moments with key pieces of equipment – some of it being used in such an exercise for the first time – the crew might have to deal with in much worse circumstances.

“We learned there are a few minor defects with our equipment,” said Raymond Isehaug, an NCA executive officer aboard the Barentshav. “That’s a part of the reason for these exercises.”

The scenario involving a large container ship running aground and leaking heavy oil (simulated with foam for portions of the exercise) into the sea was based on what officials see as an increasingly likely possibility as commercial ship traffic in Svalbard is expected to rise as the sea ice continues to shrink.

(Article continues below the picture from OV Bøkfjord)

OV Bøkfjord


One of the most significant parts of the exercise involved the deployment of the NCA’s new  Bøkfjord hybrid vessel, which is powered largely by rechargeable batteries is designed to allow the unloading of equipment in shallow water where no port facilities exist. The 44-meter ship – the NCA’s first hybrid vessel – features the largest battery bank of any such vessel in Norway and has the ability to recover 170 cubic meters of oil.

Lack of communication

“Now we can go in with one ship instead of two,” said Kjersti Dale, a senior advisor for the Norwegian Coastal Administration. “In Svalbard, where there is limited equipment, that’s very important.”

Participants in the exercise – including local and regional government agencies, as well as private entities – also learned to cope with the lack of internet and mobile communications generally available during emergencies elsewhere in Norway.

“We had to take special safety considerations there, as well as other communication channels had to be used,” said Rune Bergstrom, a former leader of The Governor of Svalbard’s environmental department who coordinated efforts with local officials during the exercise, in a statement issued subsequently. “We had the great advantage of the governor’s own digital communications network.”

Shore cleanup - watch for polar bears

The first day of the live containment exercise focused on containment at sea using the only the governor’s resources, with the Polarsyssel and auxiliary vessels deploying booms to contain a supposed 60 cubic meters of oil along a stretch of a few kilometers, Isehaug said. The NCA took lead command on second day when the focus was on removing a smaller – but often much harder to access amount – from both the sea and shore using people from multiple agencies.

The governor’s Polarsyssel vessel was used as the command center for the shore cleanup on the second day, which involved the transport of workers using smaller boats from several agencies. There was also the real-life need to watch for polar bears – another factor that might have been a seriously limiting factor in less favorable weather.

Rune Bergstrøm, NCA. Photo: Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk NTB Scanpix“In dense fog, for example, we would have had to wait to work from the beaches, Bergstrom said.

“Today we know where the oil has hit the shore,” he said. “We also know that the ship that grounded yesterday is empty so there will be no more oil from there. Now it’s about saving the beaches.”

Plus, with luck, improving some actions from previous exercises.

“It’s been a while since we put out our oil booms, so maybe today we can do it a few minutes faster,” Isehaug said.

A plane conducted an areal survey shortly after the ships reached the “spill” site, but much of the overhead observation was done using a large helium balloon fitted with a specialized camera – yet another piece of equipment especially useful in Svalbard.

Ocean-Eye overview

“This we can have up for ten hours,” said Morten Bøe, an Ocean-Eye operator for the Norwegian Clear Seas Organization, which is jointly owned by all oil companies drilling in Norway. “When you have a long operation it’s a lot cheaper than if you have an aircraft.”

The balloon, deployed about 120 meters high during the exercise, can also be relaunched after a 30-minute period to recharge the batteries of the camera, which has capabilities such as time-lapse and infrared imagry.

“If there’s a man overboard we can lock the camera on that position,” Bøe said.

Raincoat for the beachKjersti Dale, photo: Jan Morten Bjørnbakk, NTB Scanpix

On shore, a couple of workers poured specially treated foam into a blower, with another person spraying it until the rocks on shore were covered. A large rotating brush was then used to scrub the bark into the rocks, which in real life would soak the oil from them.

“It’s like a raincoat” in terms of preventing the oil from contaminating the sea if the bark is drifting in, Dale said.

"We reached the goals"

The final day of the exercise was used to assess the cleanup effort. Johan Marius Ly NCA’s emergency preparedness director, said in a prepared statement afterward the initial indicators are positive.

“We conclude that we reached the goals we had set for ourselves for the exercise, and now we will go through the learning points and what we should practice more,” he said. “This will make our emergency preparedness stronger before any major events affect the particularly vulnerable natural areas on Svalbard.”


A number of other partners participated in the exercise with equipment and/or personnel resources.

  • —   NCA
  • —   Governor of Svalbard
  • —   Joint armed forces headquarters (FOH)
  • —   Norwegian Coast Guard
  • —   Joint rescue coordination centre (JRCC)
  • —   Norwegian Maritime Authority
  • —   Norwegian Environment Agency
  • —   Norwegian Polar Institute
  • —   Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies(Nofo)
  • —   Shipping companies
  • —   Insurance companies

  • The following vessels participated in the exercise.
  • —Polarsyssel
  • —KV Barentshav
  • —OV Bøkfjord
  • —Elling Carlsen
  • —Longyear 2
  • —State-owned tug
  • —RV Lance
  • —Simulated wreck
  • Aerial/surveillance resources.
  • —LN-KYV (NCA’s surveillance aircraft)
  • —Helicopter from the governor
  • —Ocean Eye (Nofo balloon)
  • Gouvernors rescue helicopter

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