Singapore counts costs of oil spill to biodiversity-rich waters as shore cleanup expands

Oil was spotted in waters off Changi on Singapore’s east coast, four days after a tanker collision near the island state’s southern waters. Authorities will assess if habitat restoration efforts are needed.

Oil spill_Sentosa
Oil from a tanker collision left white sandy shores on Singapore's resort island of Sentosa tarred with a black slick. This made the impact of the spill very visible for all to see. Image: Liang Lei / Eco-Business

Singapore’s marine and wildlife conservation community is on high alert to monitor the impacts of an oil spill on mangroves and other biodiversity hotspots near the island state’s southern waters natural habitats historically decimated by heavy reclamation activities and unregulated harvesting. 

Preliminary surveys conducted on two islands, St John’s and Lazarus, two days after a 400-metric-tonne oil spill at a nearby port terminal last Friday, found “no significant impact” on marine biodiversity, reported the National Parks Board (NParks), as there were no immediate sightings of fish deaths or birds in distress. Scientists say these are positive signs but it could also take time for true impacts from the incident to manifest. 

The two islands, roughly 40 minutes by boat from Marina South Pier and connected to each other by bridge, are part of Singapore’s southern island chain. They are among the sites worst hit by the oil spill, which was caused by a collision between Netherlands-flagged dredging boat Vox Maxima and a stationary Singapore-flagged bunker vessel Marine Honor at about 2.20pm last Friday. 

Reports of tidal currents washing treated oil onto the shores of Sentosa, Singapore’s popular resort island home to luxury hotels and golf courses, began emerging on Saturday, at the start of a long weekend.

Photos of an oil-soaked kingfisher and coastlines coated with black oil slick sparked concerns for the surrounding biodiversity-rich lagoons and coastal areas; Eco-Business saw oil clinging to mangroves and water birds feeding near oil-coated sand while surveying the nearby Berlayer Creek, one of mainland Singapore’s two remaining mangroves in the south. The stench of petrochemicals continues to linger. 

Bird_oil spill_Berlayer Creek

A water bird feeding near oil slick at the mouth of Berlayer Creek, one of Singapore’s mainland mangroves. Image: Ng Wai Mun / Eco-Business

N. Sivasothi, a mangrove expert at the National University of Singapore, identified the site, as well as the rocky sea-cliff at the adjacent Labrador Nature Reserve and the Southern Islands as key areas where the spill’s impacts could be high, given their proximity to the source of the spill. While a recent update indicates that oil has been spotted in the eastern waters, including off Changi’s naval base, it would take some time before the oil reaches other important biodiversity hotspots such as Chek Jawa, the 100-hectare wetlands located on Pulau Ubin, an island off the north-eastern coast, with Southwest monsoon winds factored in, according to Sivasothi.

“The monitoring of ecological impacts will have to be done in a scientific way, against past baseline data,” he said, adding that the oil spill’s impact on public beaches has resulted in “high visibility” for the incident, but that should not affect how biodiversity impacts are measured and interpreted. 

Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), which manages the resort island, is working with oil spill response experts and contractors to clean and restore water quality along Sentosa’s affected beaches, as well as to protect the cove waterways, a joint media statement from the statutory board and government agencies involved said.

On the mainland, cleaners have been deployed at East Coast Park and Labrador Nature Reserve, and the operations have expanded since Monday to ensure that additional absorbent booms – floating devices that can soak up and prevent oil from reaching beaches and delicate marshlands – are also placed near the Chek Jawa Wetlands and other biodiversity-sensitive areas in the East. 

In a written response to queries from Eco-Business, Dr Anna Wong, group director of NParks, said the authorities will continue to closely track the immediate impact of the oil spill to Singapore’s marine habitats including its corals and wildlife. NParks will continue to monitor the recovery of marine habitats post-impact and assess if restoration efforts are required, she said. It will also explore activating volunteers for intertidal surveys post-cleanup. 

Friends of Marine Park

Volunteers from the Friends of the Marine Park joined a survey of the Southern Islands coordinated by NParks last Sunday. Image: Desmond Lee / Facebook

Wong also shared that, as of Tuesday, two collared kingfishers were retrieved from impacted sites by NParks and sent to a wildlife rehabilitation centre for veterinary treatment and care. Pain relief was provided to the birds and their mouths, eyes and nasal areas were cleaned, but one of the birds has since passed away. 

“The survival rate of these birds is low even with prompt veterinary intervention due to stress and accidental ingestion of the oil which is toxic to them,” she said. 

NParks has asked members of the public to contact a central response centre should they encounter any oil-slicked animal. Separately, Singapore animal welfare non-profit Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) responded to four to five calls for kingfishers in distress; it took in two kingfishers and one has since died. A monitor lizard covered in oil was also spotted in Sentosa, a day after the oil spill, but could not be rescued. 

Kingfisher_oil_Acres

ACRES took in two kingfishers affected by oil. One has since passed away, while the other is under recovery. Image: ACRES

Attribution challenge

The oil spill comes about a month after Singapore announced plans to designate its second marine park – comprising the southern part of Lazarus Island and the reef off another island, Kusu Island – in its southern waters. Parts of its first park, the Sisters’ Islands Marine Park, were also affected by the spill. 

Stephen Beng, chair of the Friends of Marine Park community, a voluntary network that includes marine scientists, boaters and ocean-dependent business owners, said: “Singapore has experienced oil spills before, and even though the scale of the current spill at about 400 metric tonnes is smaller, we cannot downplay the damaging impacts of oil pollution on our waters. The environment is already under a lot of pressure.”

Timeline of oil spill response

14 June, Friday

2.22pm MPA was alerted to the collision incident at Pasir Panjang Port Terminal. 

2.33pm MPA said it immediately activated response actions after discovering that oil had spilled, and mobilised oil booms, dispersants and oil skimmers to reduce the impact. It found no further leak from the vessel after.

3.30pm Sentosa received a notification from MPA about the nearby incident, and began monitoring for impacts on its waters. 

9.20pm Sentosa Development Corp began cordoning off parts of Palawan Beach, which saw visible oil slicks. 

15 June, Saturday

Oil is sighted in the waters on the Sentosa beaches. According to a media release, due to tidal currents, treated oil landed along shorelines including Sentosa, Labrador Nature Reserve, Southern Islands, Marine South Pier and East Coast Park. Some beaches are closed. 

16 June, Sunday

NParks said it received overwhelming response from members of the public to help out, with over 1,500 volunteer sign-ups as of Sunday afternoon, and will activate volunteers if more help is needed. For their safety, volunteers were not deployed for shoreline clean-up. It coordinated biodiversity surveys at the Southern Islands, St John’s Island and Lazarus Island. 

17 June, Monday

Clean-up efforts expand and advance to the next phase. 1500 metres of booms were deployed, and the authorities said an additional 1600 metres will be deployed over the next few days in designated sites to support the containment of accumulated oil. Additional booms will also be deployed as a preventive measure off Changi East.

Singapore is a global maritime and fuel bunkering hub. In its commercial waters, the risks to vulnerable marine ecosystems are often magnified by coastal infrastructural developments and well-trafficked shipping routes. Volunteers from Friends of Marine Park have been participating in the post-spill surveys to ensure that gaps in response efforts can be promptly identified, and Beng highlighted how scientists and marine ecologists could face the challenge of attribution, as there are multiple threats that can lead to habitat degradation. 

“It is a tough challenge that we face, as the Singapore waters are so busy. The recent incident involving a bunker carrying oil and a dredger in a spot extremely near the marine park sums up the reality we have to face as a shipping and petrochemicals hub, especially if the industries do not move away from fossil fuels,” he said. 

Beng said the oil spill happened right at the start of the nesting season for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. These marine reptiles nest on sandy seashores and need to come to the surface of the water to breathe. Oil spills, depending on the volume and the type of oil, can also affect aquatic species and vegetative structures;. other experts have noted how already-weakened coral reefs could also be impacted.

So far there have also been questions on whether the tanker collision last Friday is linked to the container logjam at Singapore’s port, as shipping vessels now avoid the Red Sea route around Africa after attacks on vessels by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In a social media post yesterday evening, Singapore’s transport minister Chee Hong Tat rejected such speculations and said: “Preliminary findings show that the allision was caused by the dredger experiencing sudden loss of engine and steering controls. It is not due to port congestion as our port waters and anchorages are not congested. Earlier reports on delays experienced by container vessels are a separate matter [that are] due to the bunching of container vessels arriving at the port.” 

It will take time for Singapore’s maritime and port authority (MPA) to complete the full investigation, he said. 

Booms_Berlayer Creek

Booms or floating devices that can soak up and prevent oil from reaching the mangroves were deployed near Berlayer Creek. Image: Ng Wai Mun / Eco-Business

Who to remedy the environmental harm?

In recent years, high-profile oil spills around the world that have wreaked destruction on internationally protected nature reserves and biodiversity-rich marine ecosystems have led to questions on liabilities. Yet, holding big business to account for pollution and even large-scale environmental disasters has been a complex issue. 

Ocean Purpose Project, a social enterprise involved in marine plastic-related projects in the eastern parts of Singapore, has been vocal about getting emissions-heavy sectors to sponsor or donate proper cleaning equipment for frontline cleaners, to put a spotlight on the responsibilities these industry players bear. It asked members of the public to “reach out to oil and gas, maritime industries, shipyards and industrial cleaners through calls, emails and social media” to make these donations. 

Beng said the board and management of companies in fossil fuels-reliant sectors need to start thinking beyond decarbonisation, and also consider how their business operations impact the environment and lead to potential biodiversity loss.

“The private sector, particularly marine industries, should recognise that they are reliant on thriving natural ecosystems and can also contribute and play an important role to finance marine restoration and protection.”

Just before the oil spill, media agency Reuters, quoting sources familiar with the matter, reported that Singapore is offering refiners and petrochemical companies rebates of up to 76 per cent for its planned carbon tax for 2024 and 2025 to help them “ease cost stress” and remain competitive.

Sivasothi said he is unaware if liabilities for previous oil spills in Singapore took into consideration the impacts on nature and biodiversity. “In an ideal world, compensation would have to cover these costs. Otherwise they have to be borne by the state.” 

“Singapore is a transport logistics hub. Oil spills, unfortunately, is the reality we face, and the private sector can consider financing some of the post-spill surveys, at a cost that would be just a drop in the ocean for them.” 

In the aftermath of the oil spill, Sivasothi said that there should also be a closer analysis of the speed of response to the incident. Oil spill response protocols have been in place and improved on since a large oil spill in 2010 involving 2,500 tonnes of crude oil, and the relevant authorities “do know what to do”, he said.

“This time round, we began to hear about the impact only when it hit Sentosa. So some are asking: how effective was the immediate response? The question has to be posed: Could we have done it better?”  

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