It's on us. Share your news here.

Singapore: Action plan to protect and restore coastal habitats after oil spill in the works: minister

With most of the oil cleared from the sea and beaches, the government agencies are moving to the next phase of cleanup operations. PHOTO: MPA/THE STRAITS TIMES Please also use the 2nd photo and insert in the text, with this caption: A kingfisher that died on June 16, about 36 hours after it was rescued.

Posted on June 26, 2024

SINGAPORE – An action plan to protect and restore coastal habitats from the effects of the oil spill is being worked out by government agencies and the community, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said on June 24.

A few suggestions for what this plan could look like were raised during a consultation session held on June 21 with members of nature and community groups and institutions of higher learning, he said.

Mr Lee and Mr Baey Yam Keng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment, and Transport, attended the session, which aimed to tap the participants’ specialist skills and experience to manage the oil spill’s impact.

Suggestions raised included strengthening wildlife rescue and recovery processes, carrying out impact assessment and habitat surveys to monitor the effects on wildlife and biodiversity, and conducting scientific research to understand the longer-term impact of oil spills on biodiversity.

“Together, we are developing an action plan to protect and restore coastal habitats over the next six months and beyond,” Mr Lee added.

He was speaking at a joint ministerial press conference held at the National Press Centre on June 24.

The press conference marks the 11th day since the Netherlands-flagged dredging boat Vox Maxima hit the stationary Singapore-flagged bunker vessel Marine Honour at Pasir Panjang Terminal on June 14. The incident resulted in a 400-tonne oil spill that has since tarred the beaches of Singapore and Malaysia.

Following the oil spill, several government agencies – including the Maritime and Port Authority, National Environment Agency, National Parks Board (NParks) and Sentosa Development Corporation – came together for cleanup operations.

More than 700 people have been deployed for cleanup operations, and more than 3,400m of boom have been laid so far to help contain trapped oil from flowing back to sea, and to prevent oil remnants from being washed ashore and into inland canals while beach cleanup operations are ongoing.

With most of the oil cleared from the sea and beaches, the agencies said in a joint statement they are moving to the next phase of cleanup operations, which will remove oil from less accessible areas such as rock bunds and waterside infrastructure.

The National Parks Board (NParks), which oversees Singapore’s biodiversity protection and restoration efforts, is an agency under Mr Lee’s ministry.

Giving an update on the impact of the oil spill on Singapore’s nature areas, Mr Lee said the authorities, through prompt action and close cooperation with the nature community, have managed to limit the immediate impact of the oil spill on the country’s coastal and marine biodiversity and habitats.

The Straits Times had earlier reported that four oil-slicked collared kingfishers were rescued, although two of them later died. No other oil-coated animals have been retrieved by the authorities to date, although volunteers, nature groups and NParks are continuing to keep an eye on the situation.

But Mr Lee cautioned that there could be longer-term impact, saying: “There could also be a time lag between the incidence of the oil spill and its effects on biodiversity and habitats. It will take time for us to assess the long-term environmental impact.”

For example, the impact on sensitive species such as corals, seagrass and sea stars may be visible only weeks or months later, such as during spawning periods, he said.

During Singapore’s last major oil spill in 2017, which affected areas like the biodiversity-rich Chek Jawa Wetlands on offshore Pulau Ubin, recovery took a few months. Ubin was not affected by the recent oil spill.

After an oil spill in 2010, monitoring studies of the intertidal habitat in Tanah Merah showed that seagrass and coral reefs started recovering only after a year.

“When National Environment Agency colleagues have assessed the affected areas to be safe and can be open for public access, we will work with our partners on recovery efforts, which include coastal cleanup activities, beach patrols, wildlife recovery and habitat surveys,” said Mr Lee.

More than 1,500 volunteers have signed up to help with the oil spill management efforts; and more than 2,000 others have registered to be kept closely updated on ongoing efforts and future volunteering opportunities. So far, about 400 volunteers have been deployed.

The Friends of Marine Park community – a voluntary network that includes marine scientists, boat users and ocean-dependent business owners – will partner the Government on habitat surveys at the intertidal areas such as along East Coast Park and Changi Beach Park.

The Government will also work with volunteers to carry out intertidal and subtidal surveys on the Southern Islands.

Community beach cleanup groups such as Stridy and International Coastal Cleanup Singapore (ICCS) have started to coordinate their networks so that they can organise cleanups once it is possible to do so.

If distressed animals are found in the coming days, the authorities will also work with the Mandai Wildlife Group, Singapore Veterinary Association, Acres and the S.E.A. Aquarium, and tap on their pool of veterinarians for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

Meanwhile, animal welfare groups such as Bird Society of Singapore and Otter Watch will share tips, such as dos and don’ts when spotting oil-slicked wildlife with the wider public, and increase public awareness on the oil spill response.

The scientific community and institutes of higher learning, such as the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University and St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory, have begun surveys of the Southern Islands and Labrador Nature Reserve, said Mr Lee.

They will also survey sites such as Serapong and Tanjong Rimau on Sentosa. NParks is working with them on survey methods and research questions, he added.

Dr Jani Tanzil, facility director at St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory, said scientists from various research groups at NUS and NTU surveyed the coastal areas of St John’s and Lazarus islands on June 24.

The researchers collected samples of sediment and nerite snails – creatures found in intertidal areas – and conducted visual surveys of seagrass.

Dr Tanzil said researchers at the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute are also interested in studying macrobenthic infauna – tiny creatures such as worms, clams, crabs and other crustaceans that live in the sediment – to see how their diversity and abundance may have been affected by the oil spill.

“These (animals) are the wildlife that usually escape people’s attention, but… play important roles in the ecosystem,” she said. “These organisms help to break down organic matter that settle on the sea floor, and help to cycle nutrients and oxygenate sediments. They are also food for a lot of marine life.”

She noted that no large patches of oil slick were observed, but added: “Based on our visual scan, the seagrass seemed to have mostly escaped the bulk of the oil slicks, though we did see some oil sheens in the water as well. No oil slicks were seen on the intertidal corals.”

Mr Lee said joint efforts by the Government and the community will be sustained over the next few months. “(We will) check in regularly with our partners along the way to take stock of our progress and our findings,” he added.

When asked how the financial impact of damage to the environment can be assessed, he said there is an existing liability framework and claims will be assessed when they are put forward.

Mr Stephen Beng, chairman of the Friends of Marine Park, said he hopes this incident will raise the need for research into issues beyond the assessment of environmental impact. This could include research that quantifies, in dollar value, the cost of environmental damage, he said.

“Currently, we don’t have a compensatory framework in place for environmental damage,” said Mr Beng. “But if we can use the data collected in this incident to quantify the negative impact of the oil pollution in financial terms, that will send a strong signal to the private sector and the shipping companies involved that environmental harm comes at a cost as well.”


It's on us. Share your news here.
Submit Your News Today

Join Our
Click to Subscribe