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Coastal authorities practice for potential oil spills

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Coastal authorities practice for potential oil spills
Coastal workers toss popcorn into the sea for a safety exercise. Photo: DPA
10:46 CEST+02:00
As the devastating oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico continues gush, German coastal authorities prepared to deal with a similar accident with a large-scale clean-up and rescue exercise this week.

Tens of thousands of ships pass through German waters along the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts each year, making the danger of a tanker spill a daily reality. But the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (CCME) believes it is prepared for the worst, conducting 160 emergency exercises each year.

On Wednesday, the Haveriekommando, as they are known in German, threw massive quantities of popcorn into the North Sea at Schillig near the UNESCO protected Wattenmeer tidal mudflats. The popcorn clean-up emulates that of an oil slick operation because the crunchy snack rests on the water's surface, but doesn't harm the area's sensitive ecosystem, the organisation said.

But no matter how many practice clean up operations authorities command, it's still impossible to be ready for a spill as big as the one yet to be contained in the Gulf of Mexico, CCME head Hans-Werner Monsees said.

“One can't prepare for such a scenario. It's far too expensive,” he said, adding that the likelihood of a similar spill along German shorelines is small.

Furthermore, the country's coastal protection mechanisms are better armed to handle such an ordeal, he said. States there have cooperated to raise their disaster capacity to tackle an oil leak from a tanker collision.

“In total, 23 oil clean-up ships are at the ready along German coasts in the case of an emergency, and some are constantly at sea,” CCME spokesman Ulrike Windhövel said, adding that neighbouring countries are also ready to provide support.

Meanwhile environmental group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that Europe has better regulations in place to properly combat an oil spill than the United States.

“The shipping organisations have certainly learned from past accidents. The Europeans are further along than the Americans,” WWF expert Stephan Lutter said, citing unified laws and environmental safety tests.

But even these would be no match for a big spill, he said, adding that the CCME would also be “overwhelmed” in the case of a huge spill.

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