Toxic fumes and slick-coated coasts: Singapore’s oil spill cleanup, in pictures

Public beaches on Singapore’s resort island of Sentosa as well as East Coast Park were closed to swimmers after a tanker collision at a port terminal caused oil to spill into the waters.

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Workers, donning masks and gloves, cleaning up an affected beach off the Singapore mainland in Sentosa on 17 June. Apart from the cordoned off areas, the popular getaway’s three beaches remain open to the public, though swimming and other sea activities have been suspended. Image: Gabrielle See / Eco-Business

Singapore has been working to clean up thick oil slicks along its public beaches since the start of a long holiday weekend last Saturday, after tidal currents washed oil that leaked from a damaged tanker onto nearby shores. 

A Netherlands-flagged dredger Vox Maxima struck the stationary Singaporean fuel supply ship Marine Honor on Friday afternoon, at about 2.20pm Singapore time. It damaged the cargo tank on Marine Honor, causing an oil leak which was subsequently treated with dispersants and that landed along shorelines at the resort island of Sentosa and other southern islands, a nature reserve and a public beach park the next day. A visible thick black slick could be seen on the coasts. 

The cleanup is ongoing, and sea activities as well as swimming have been prohibited at most beachfronts. Members of the public have been advised to keep away from affected areas though beachgoers, including families with young children, were spotted strolling or picnicking near the sites. 

Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry in charge of managing and developing the popular tourist haunt, started cordoning off segments of its three beaches affected by the oil slick on Friday evening, after being notified about the incident. About 100 workers from licensed contractors have been deployed by SDC for clean-up and restoration efforts.

Here are photos documenting the cleanup: 

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Oil spill response contractors at Palawan Beach in Sentosa shovelling contaminated sand into trash bags two days after the oil spill spread eastwards from Pasir Panjang Terminal due to the tidal currents. Image: Liang Lei / Eco-Business

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Workers in Sentosa aboard one of the 18 response crafts that have been deployed to contain the spillage at sea. Image: Liang Lei / Eco-Business

Booms – barriers specially designed to contain oil floating on the surface of the water – have been deployed at Palawan Beach and will soon be fully deployed at Siloso and Tanjong beaches. 

As of 17 June, 1,500 metres of booms have been set up across all the affected coastlines and as a precautionary measure to protect the mangroves at a park north of the tanker collision site. 

An additional 1,600 metres targeting the biodiversity-sensitive Chek Jawa Wetlands off the mainland, fish farms at the East Johor Straits and a reservoir near the eastern tip of the island, will be deployed in the coming days, according to a joint media statement by the relevant agencies.

The Singapore Food Agency has assured the public that none of the local fish farms have been touched by the oil spread thus far and that it is “in close contact” with all of them. 

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Makeshift barricades and warning cones demarcate contaminated areas along Palawan Beach, where workers can be seen cleaning up. Image: Liang Lei / Eco-Business

Apart from the three Sentosa beaches – which are among the nine popular recreational beaches in Singapore – advisories have been put up for East Coast Park and more recently, Changi Beach, located on the eastern region of the island. This is in addition to an advisory issued for two other beaches by the northern coastlines earlier this year, due to high levels of gastrointestinal infection-causing bacteria found in surrounding waters.

However, the agency’s official water quality advisories page, which is meant to be updated on a weekly basis, has not reflected any updates since 9 June, as of press time. 

The national water agency, which incidentally ushered in its week-long global event on urban water challenges today, said on Monday that the city-state’s desalination plants and freshwater reservoirs “remain unaffected” by the oil spill.

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The oil spill reached the eastern fringe of Singapore, covering beaches at East Coast Park with the thick, sticky fluid. Image: Robin Hicks / Eco-Business

About 400 metric tonnes of oil escaped into the waters following the collision, posing a danger to both humans and wildlife. “Heavy” bunker oils – oils that are thick and do not flow easily – can smother organisms due to their high viscosity. They can also cause death by hypothermia in birds by coating their feathers, which are essential for thermal insulation.

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Despite signage to warn people of the disaster, the area continued to be a popular spot for picnics. Image: Yang Yajie / Eco-Business

Beachgoers were undeterred by advisories to stay away from the oil-slicked shorelines, as East Coast Park was teeming with crowds on Monday evening, just three days past the incident. Families with children could be seen picnicking by the coast, metres away from the bags of contaminated sand. 

Under Singapore’s oil spill contingency plan, collected oil waste needs to be properly disposed of by approved hazardous waste disposal specialists, such as Singaport Cleanseas and NSL. 

Additionally, the city-state holds joint oil spill exercises every year, involving government agencies and port terminals. Singapore also has collaborative procedures with neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, when an oil spill occurs in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. MPA has informed the authorities of both nations.

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Shoreline near Berlayer Creek, currently one of two remaining mangrowves located in the south of mainland Singapore, coated with oil sleek. The Sentosa cable car line can be seen in the background. Image: Ng Wai Mun / Eco-Business

Berlayer Creek, located near Labrador Nature Reserve, is home to 60 bird species, 19 fish species, and 14 true mangrove plants – species that grow exclusively in intertidal zones. 

Mangroves, usually known for their adaptability to changing environmental conditions and their ability to protect shorelines from rising sea levels and soil erosion, can be highly vulnerable to oil toxicity, which can damage the ability of its roots to keep salt out for their survival.

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A pair of individuals stand on the beach area that has been cordoned off at East Coast Park, despite the red and white tape that has been erected to keep the public out. Image: Yang Yajie / Eco-Business

A portion of the beachfront at East Coast Park has been cleaned, although some parts of the beach remain covered in oil. Petroleum fumes were also barely perceptible when Eco-Business visited the park on Monday evening, except near regions of the beach that were still contaminated. 

Since 15 June, the National Environment Agency (NEA) has conducted daily air quality tests at affected areas along Sentosa, East Coast Park, and Labrador Nature Reserve. The daily test measures levels of volatile organic compounds, such as Benzene, Toluene, and Xylene, which are commonly associated with bunkering fuels and other petrochemicals. According to the NEA, air quality at the affected areas remains well within safe levels, and no anomalies have been detected in other regions of Singapore.

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The artificial beaches at Sentosa, created using imported sand from Singapore’s neighbouring countries, are one of the main draws of the island. Image: Gabrielle See / Eco-Business

Crowds were thinner than usual on the beaches along Sentosa’s southern coasts on the morning of 17 June, despite it being a public holiday. 

14-year-olds Syaqirah, Jia Ling and Marie, who belonged to the handful of picnickers spotted on Siloso Beach – the beach closest to ground zero of the oil spill – told Eco-Business that they had decided to go ahead with their pre-made plans as they were a long time in the making, despite knowing about the incident, and were unbothered by the stench of petroleum in the air. 

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Oil coating a stretch of East Coast Park on 16 June. The source of imported sand for a planned major reclamation project along the eastern coast of Singapore has been raised by multiple members of parliament as a point of concern. Image: Robin Hicks / Eco-Business

How can members of the public help in the aftermath of an oil spill?

- Keep away from beaches and clean-up sites that are closed. Exposure to crude oil can cause skin irritation, breathing problems, and other health issues. 

- If you encounter any oil-slicked animal, contact Singapore’s Animal Response Centre at 1800-476-1600, a 24-hour helpline. If the animal is spotted within Sentosa, contact the island rangers at 1800-RANGERS (1800-726-4377).

- Alert the authorities and reach out if you spot oil slicks in areas that were previously not impacted. 

- Sign up as a volunteer for oil spill management. The agencies coordinating this effort have received overwhelming interest to volunteer since Saturday, and has advised that it may not be able to activate all who have signed up, due to the nature of the clean up operations. 

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