UN contingency plan activated to help tackle Republic of Korea oil spill

UN contingency plan activated to help tackle Republic of Korea oil spill

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China and Japan have sent material and experts under a United Nations emergency response plan to help the Republic of Korea (ROK) mitigate the worst oil spill in its history, which has already hit key fishing grounds and is expected to damage the livelihoods of up to 27,000 aquaculture workers.

An oil spill contingency plan was launched by the Northwest Pacific Action Plan (NOWPAP), directed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), at the ROK’s request after the oil tanker Hebei Spirit collided with a barge 100 kilometres south of Seoul, the capital, on 7 December, releasing 10,500 metric tons of crude oil into the sea.

NOWPAP member countries China and Japan have sent around 100 tons of dispersant and Japan has dispatched a team of experts to help contain the oil slick, which is affecting 160 kilometres of coastline near an important habitat for birds.

The spill is threatening to enter Cheonsu Bay, home for about 400,000 migratory birds, and the emergency has triggered a major clean-up operation involving 200,000 people, mostly volunteers, as well as 327 vessels, 17 airplanes and 13 helicopters.

NOWPAP comes under UNEP's Regional Seas Programme and its contingency plan was developed in full cooperation between UNEP and the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO). It was adopted in 2004 by China, Japan, ROK and Russia to deal with large oil spill emergencies.

In accordance with the plan, member countries inform each other of oil spill accidents and provide assistance to the country in need. NOWPAP's Regional Activity Centre in Daejon, Korea, is serving as the “nerve centre” for activation and implementation.

A joint UN-European Union (EU) rapid environmental assessment team, made up of experts from the European Commission’s Monitoring and Information Centre, UNEP and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also been sent on site. Additional support has come from the United States coastguard, which has sent a team to give advice, and a private company in Singapore which is providing aircraft.