Denmark’s ability to respond to a major maritime oil or chemical spill has come under fire from a number fronts for being out-of-date, fragmented and “unacceptable”.
An internal military report concluded that the two primary clean-up ships, ‘Gunnar Seidenfaden’ and ‘Gunnar Thorson’, are only able to deal with non-dangerous oil spills
The reason is that the ships, which fall under naval command, are not equipped with crew areas that can keep out harmful gases being released from substances the ships collect or with electrical and machine installations that ensure that explosive gasses are not ignited.
“If we arrive at the scene of a oil or chemical spill that we don’t know the contents of then I have to tell the Navy that it is a task that I’m unable to accept because I will endanger the lives of my crew,” Øjvind Bach, the captain of the ‘Gunnar Seidenfaden’, told DR News. “There is a risk of oil fumes entering the ship and that is simply dangerous to the crew.”
In the event of an oil spill, the ships would need to wait up to 24 hours for any dangerous gasses to evaporate before they could approach.
The two ships were built in the 1980s and will officially become obsolete in 2015. At that time new ships will have to be purchased at an estimated price one billion kroner, or the task will need to be outsourced, something that the defence minister, Nick Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), is currently discussing with parliament.
The concern about the ships is not the first time problems with maritime spill response capabilities have been indentified. International municipal environmental group KIMO first criticised Denmark’s ability to respond to a major spill back in 2010, calling it “unacceptable”.
“KIMO finds that the connection between worn out material and the mounting risk of a large oil spill in Danish waters should lead to improvement of Denmark’s environmental response capability,” KIMO’s report at that time stated.
KIMO hasn’t registered any attempts to improve coastal response efforts since then.
And the risk of an environmental disaster occurring in Danish waters is steadily growing, due to the increased transport of oil through sea lanes connecting the Baltic to the North Sea, according to a 2007 Defence Ministry report.
The report indicated that, through 2020, about one oil or chemical spill would occur in Danish waters every year. It’s been almost 12 years since Denmark suffered its most devastating oil disaster, when the ‘Baltic Carrier’ oil tanker collided with the cargo ship ‘Tern’, releasing almost 3,000 tons of heavy fuel oil off the coast of the island of Falster.
To further compound the dilemma, budget cuts  could hinder the military’s ability to respond to spills. This may lead to the outsourcing of key operations, and, according to biologists, a further enfeebling of response capability.
“Outsourcing will lead to a further spreading of the response force into smaller units that don’t have the necessary competencies to handle the task,” Erik Kristensen, of the University of Southern Denmark, told science weekly Ingeniøren. “The response force requires centralised leadership and a larger capacity, not more fragmentation.”
Kristensen is supported by other experts, who say Denmark should look to neighbouring countries for ways to improve its response capability. Germany, Sweden and Norway all operate with a coast guard that is responsible for a number of maritime tasks, including oil spills. It’s a clear advantage that one authority has overview of the situation, Jan Isakson, the maritime environment specialist with Greenpeace Sweden, told Ingeniøren.
“It is imperative in order to limit the oil spills and it seems odd that Denmark has adopted the opposite tack, especially when you think how essential the Danish effort is, given the geographical location of the country,” Isakson said.
As it stands, the Navy, councils, the police and the home guard are just some of the organisations that are responsible for responding to a maritime environmental disaster.