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The development of marine pollution responsibilities

2021-05-07  Staff Reporter

The development of marine pollution responsibilities
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General concern over oil pollution appears to have originated in the first decade after World War 1 when, first the United States, and then the League of Nations undertook to obtain explicit international agreement on measures to combat oil pollution. 

Very few states had, in the past, sought to extend legislation regarding pollution beyond their territorial sea, and no states had, until the present, sought to apply prohibitory regulations beyond this area. It can, therefore, be said that almost all prescriptive activity has taken the form of international agreement. 

In 1926 the International Maritime Conference in Washington produced the first international convention relating to oil pollution. The problem was discussed in both technical and legal terms, but the convention failed to be ratified by any nation. Oil pollution, particularly on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, was very considerable during and after World War 11 as a direct result of the many torpedoed, sunken and otherwise damage vessels. 

By the 1950s a rising world economy contributed to a renewed concern over the pollution problem (Edgar Gold, Handbook on Maritime Pollution). Nothing concrete however was achieved until 1954 when the International Convention for the Prevention of Oil Pollution was concluded after a conference in London. This Convention, known as OILPOL’54, entered into force in 1958 and prohibits the international discharge of oil and oily mixtures from certain vessels in specified ocean areas.  Although it has contributed to cleaner seas, it did not establish any enforcement system other than flag state enforcement. 

Although the OILPOL Convention has been super ceded by MARPOL 73/78 it will the law for a number of states for some time to come and will thus be discussed in greater detail. Following the formation of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), as a specialised agency of the United Nations in 1958, another international conference on the subject of oil pollution was held in Copenhagen in 1959. 

This conference resulted in a number of recommendations to extend the effectiveness of the 1954 convention. Amongst these was the recommendation that preparation, under IMCO auspices, should be made for a further governmental conference on oil pollution which should considerably extend the prohibited ocean zones. 

This preparatory work resulted in the second conference on oil pollution, held in London early in 1962, during which most of the early recommendations were adopted. In 1958 and 1960 the first and second United Nations Law of the Sea Conferences took place in Geneva. 

The conferences also considered the question of marine pollution, if only superficially by including in the High Seas Convention the requirement for states: “to draw up regulations to prevent pollution of the sea by discharges of oil from ships or pipelines or resulting from exploitation of the existing treaty provisions on the subject (Article 24)”. 

Article 25 of the Geneva High Seas Convention also concerns itself with radioactive marine pollution. In March 1967 the tanker Torrey Canyon grounded off the southwest coast of England illustrating, for the first time, how the physical evidence of a major shipping/pollution disaster, enjoying wide media coverage, can influence public policy. 

The subsequent investigation found that the grounding was caused solely by the human error of the master. The accident caused the largest single oil spill in maritime history up to 1967. Some 80,000 tonnes of crude oil spread along British and French coasts, causing pollution in a 200-mile arc. The oil was released subsequent to the initial grounding and after the vessel had been bombed on orders of the British government after the decision that no other way was left to deal with the unsalvageable wreck.  In every respect, whether scientific, ecological, or legal, the Torrey Canyon disaster caught the maritime world completely unprepared. For example, scientific research into oil dispersal was then, at best, still experimental. Yet over 2.5 million gallons of various chemical dispersants were used, often with more disastrous effects on the maritime environment than the crude oil itself. Damage claims in Great Britain amounted to GBP 6 000 000 and FRF 40 000 000 in France. Most of these claims found no settlement. 

However, there is no question that for those concerned about pollution the incident was a blessing in disguise! Public concern, aroused by the wide variety of problems caused by the wreck, resulted in relatively rapid action by various governments as well as by several international organisations. Suddenly the anti-pollution campaign was no longer only the concern of environmentally conscious individuals and organisations, which had persuaded only a few governments to voice their concerns. The campaign was quickly taken over by a large number of states who saw the dangers of a major oil spill to their vulnerable coastlines. 

Such states consisted not only of coastal states without shipping interests, but also shipping states with coastal interests. Namibia’s first National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) was approved by Cabinet, giving effect to Namibia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 and the International Convention on Oil Pollution 

Preparedness, Response and Cooperation of 1990. 

The old plan provided for a coordinated and integrated national system for dealing with oil spills in Namibian waters and was characterised by willing and effective cooperation between government and industry. Sea-based sources of pollution are likely to be a growing issue as maritime shipping increases and submarine hydrocarbon/mineral exploration and extraction continue to expand. Furthermore, market forces are driving exploration in ever more extreme environments posing increased risks of marine pollution as clearly demonstrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The growing human population, intensification of agriculture and the rapid urbanisation of coastal areas are all key land-based factors causing higher levels of pollution in our seas, therefore the Namibian Prime Minister in 2017 urged all stakeholders involved in marine pollution management to use the renewed strategic focus provided by this new national plan to reinforce the entire system at the ship, port local, regional and national levels.

2021-05-07  Staff Reporter

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