Coast Guard National Strike Force ends 2014 with international oil spill assistance

Written by Ed Bock

The Coast Guard's National Strike Force took part in a joint effort to assist Bangladesh with an oil spill in December 2014. Photo courtesy of Ed Bock.

The Coast Guard’s National Strike Force took part in a joint effort to assist Bangladesh with an oil spill that occurred in the Eastern Sundarbans Reserved Forest in early December 2014. Photo courtesy of Ed Bock.

The U.S. Coast Guard is well known for its ability to handle oil and other hazardous material spills, but what isn’t well known is that the service often works with other countries to assist with their marine pollution incidents. In this case, the spill was in the Eastern Sundarbans Reserved Forest in Bangladesh.

An oil tanker accident on Dec. 9, 2014, in the Sundarbans of Southwest Bangladesh led to the release of tens of thousands of gallons of heavy fuel oil into the river and mangrove ecosystem. The mangrove forest affected is the largest single tidal mangrove forest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a sanctuary for rare Irrawaddy dolphins and Bengal tigers and is also home to 120 species of commercially important fishes, which are harvested by local fisherman.

Approximately 2.5 million people live in villages surrounding the Sundarbans and the area sustains livelihoods for approximately 300,000 people working in forestry, fishing and other agricultural industries. Mangroves are a critical habitat for marine life and function as nurseries for a wide range of juvenile animals.

On Dec. 18, the Coast Guard received a request from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, for Coast Guard National Strike Force, or NSF, assistance to support a United Nations-led assessment of the oil pollution. The request specifically sought an NSF spill expert to work with the UN team and USAID personnel in Bangladesh for three weeks. After the vessel was salvaged, it was reported that approximately 92,000 gallons of the cargo had spilled into the waterways located in the Eastern Sundarbans Reserved Forest.

The Commanding Officer of the Pacific Strike Team, Cmdr. Keith Donohue, along with Gary Shigenaka, a marine biologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and Michael Ziccardi, a wildlife epidemiologist with the University of California, deployed with Colin Holmes of USAID to Bangladesh. They were part of a 25-person Joint United Nations/Government of Bangladesh Sundarbans Oil Spill Response mission consisting of government and university officials representing the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination System, UN Development Program, the nation of France, the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, USAID and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The members spent six days in the affected area where site observations, interviews, photographs, sampling and other assessment techniques were used to evaluate the situation and develop recommendations for future actions.

The oil spill within the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh affected the nearly 2.5 million people that live in the region. The local economy is heavily dependent on forestry, fishing and other agricultural industries. Photo courtesy of Ed Bock.

The oil spill within the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh affected the nearly 2.5 million people that live in the region. The local economy is heavily dependent on forestry, fishing and other agricultural industries. Photo courtesy of Ed Bock.

While any oil spill is serious, it turned out there was a bit of good news this time: based on the team’s observations, there was limited immediate environmental impact to the mangrove and aquatic ecosystems. The shorelines 40 kilometers up and downstream of the spill site showed varying degrees of oiling. The assessment team did not observe any oil impact on the mangrove forest floor and the initial acute impacts to wildlife from this spill appear to be limited in scope.

The team recommended further monitoring to conclusively determine the effects of the residual oil in the aquatic environment and its impact on fisheries and livelihoods. The summary of findings was delivered at a press conference Dec. 31 by the UN team leader, the director of UNESCO and the Bangladesh Minister of Environment and Forestry.

The Coast Guard NSF provides highly trained, experienced personnel and specialized equipment to the Coast Guard and other federal agencies to support preparedness and response to oil and hazardous substance pollution incidents to protect public health and the environment. The NSF’s area of responsibility covers all Coast Guard districts and federal response regions and is comprised of more than 200 active duty, civilian, reserve and Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel and includes the National Strike Force Coordination Center, the Atlantic Strike Team, the Gulf Strike Team and the Pacific Strike Team.

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