West Cork oil spill

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Location of Cork within Ireland and relative to Great Britain

The West Cork oil spill was an oil spill off the southern coast of Ireland. The spill was first identified by the European Maritime Safety Agency's CleanSeaNet satellite monitoring system on 14 February 2009.[1] An Irish Air Corps marine patrol aircraft first spotted the slick around the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which was undergoing refuelling around the same time. The Russian Navy has since accepted responsibility for the incident.[2] The oil spill began heading eastwards and broke up. Whilst there were fears that the spill would wash up on the coast of south eastern Ireland or Wales this is no longer the case due to the spill breaking up.


On 14 February 2009, the Irish Coast Guard received a European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) satellite surveillance report indicating the presence of pollution off the south coast of Ireland.[3] The Coast Guard dispatched an Irish Air Corps CASA CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft to investigate which confirmed the presence of oil on the surface of the sea around a Russian Navy oil tanker and the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.[3][4] The spill was located in international waters 80 km (50 mi) south of Fastnet Rock, Ireland's most southwesterly point, and spread over an area measuring 6.4 km (4 mi) by 8 km (5 mi).[5][6]

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was in the area at the time of the spill

On 16 February, the Russian naval attaché in Ireland confirmed that the carrier had been carrying out replenishment of fuel at sea from a Russian supply tanker. The attaché confirmed an internal investigation is being carried out into the cause of the incident and said that Russian aerial surveillance considered that approximately 300 tonnes of oil was on the sea surface but could not tell how this happened or whether it was from their refuelling operations.[3][7] The Russian Navy offered no explanation for the presence of the oil but began an internal investigation into the matter.[3] Admiral Korolev, the commander of the Russian ships has stated that the refuelling proceeded in a routine manner and that there had been no leaks.[8] The Russian Navy says that it is willing to share data in an attempt to identify the origin of the spill which it says is "not catastrophic in nature and does not present a threat to the coastal environment".[4][6] The Admiral Kuznetsov is normally accompanied by at least one ocean-going tug in case of breakdown.[5] On this occasion, she was also accompanied by the Admiral Chabanenko (ru). [4] The carrier was en route to its home port following exercises in the Mediterranean Sea where, on 6 January, it suffered a fire which resulted in the death of one sailor.[5]

The British Coastguard initially estimated the quantity of oil spilled as around 1,000 tonnes, later revised down to 522 and then to 300 tonnes, a figure with which the Irish Department of Transport agreed.[3][9][10] If the original 1,000 tonnes estimate was proven accurate then this oil spill would be the biggest to have affected Great Britain and Ireland since the Sea Empress ran aground near Milford Haven in 1996.[5]

Slick movement[edit]

Late on 17 February 2009, the estimated amount of oil was revised downwards to 522 tonnes and it was 63 kilometres (39 mi) off the Irish coast.[9] The slick had broken into three streams and was moving eastwards along Ireland's south coast, at a distance of around 48–64 km (30-40 mi) offshore.[1][3] On 18 February changing wind patterns and unexpected mild weather had pushed the oil slick, which had not moved significantly since the evening before, further from shore.[11] The Irish Coast Guard ran computer simulations of the spill and expected some oil to dissolve or evaporate. Depending on weather conditions, the spill could have washed up onto the Irish south-east coast in late February and may hit Wales shortly after.[5] On 20 February, however, the spill was reported to be moving very slowly eastwards and the Irish Coast Guard said that it was possible that the slick may avoid the Irish coast completely, owing to favourable winds. By 23 February the spill was moving eastwards at just five nautical miles per day and was 50 kilometres (31 mi) south of Cork harbour and continuing to disperse.[12] As of 25 February the slick is expected to move northwards and away from the Irish coastline whilst continuing to disperse and break up.[13] The Coast Guard no longer expects the slick to make landfall before disintegrating unless wind direction and speed change unexpectedly.[10]

Environmental impact[edit]

The spill threatens birds, dolphins, porpoises and seals that are native to Ireland's south coast.[5] The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) Aquaculture division called on the relevant local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that shellfish farmers in counties Cork, Wexford and Waterford were protected. According to the IFA, over 25% of national production of mussels and oysters are cultivated in this area.[1] The Bord Iascaigh Mhara (Irish Fisheries Board) is also testing wild and farmed shellfish on the southern coast as a precautionary measure.[12] Both the Irish and Russian authorities have stated that so far the spill has not affected fishing areas or coastal habitats.[14]


Irish Coast Guard[edit]

Both HMS Gloucester, a British destroyer, and LÉ Aisling, an Irish Naval Service vessel responded to the scene.[1] The Russian vessels left the area around 18 February, having completed refuelling.[1] Samples of the oil were taken for analysis at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's (MCA) labs in Edinburgh, and Ireland has requested samples of oils carried on board the Russian vessels from the Russian Embassy in Dublin.[5] The Irish Coast Guard contracted a tug, the Celtic Isle, equipped with oil dispersal equipment from a Cork based company.[3] The tug assessed and attempted to deploy skimmers on 18 February, but the Irish Coast Guard director has said that international experience showed that success could be very limited. “Unless this fuel oil can be sprayed within the first day of a spill, it is very difficult to deal with, and collection at sea has a success rate of about 1%”.[1] The Celtic Isle was stood down by 26 February after recovery of the oil met with little success.[15] The EMSA’s pollution response vessel for this Atlantic region, the Galway Fisher, also made its way to Cork to take on board anti-pollution equipment and remain on stand-by.[1] The MCA laboratory confirmed that the oil involved was a light crude oil on 21 or 22 February.[12] Further test results announced on 26 February revealed the oil to have come from Russia.[15]

Local authorities[edit]

It was reported that both the British and Irish governments had drafted emergency plans for the cleaning of any affected coasts.[16] Oil washed up in Ireland was due to be recovered mechanically by local authorities using bulldozers and skimmers with the assistance and supervision of the Coast Guard.[3][17] By 23 February it was reported that none of the Wexford, Waterford or Cork local authorities had completed oil pollution response plans as required by law since 1999, but Wexford's plan was almost complete.[12]

Russian Navy[edit]

On 20 February the Russian military stated that it believed that the spill might have been caused during cleaning of the deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov.[16] They dispatched a high-level diplomatic delegation to Ireland to discuss the impact of the spill. The delegation included experts in the field and Vice-Admiral Popov, the deputy commander of the Russian Navy.[12][13] They met with the Irish Minister of State for the Department of Transport, Noel Ahern, and Irish Coast Guard officials on 23 February.[12][18] The discussions included an assessment of the cost of recovery of the oil and the determination of liability for the spill.[12]

On 24 February, 10 days after the initial spill, the Russian delegation admitted, with extreme regret, responsibility for the incident. The high-level Russian military delegation told the Irish Coast Guard that the incident may have occurred when bilges were inadvertently pumped out 80 km southeast of Fastnet Rock.[2] The Russian internal investigation stated that "technical malfunction and human error" were the causes of the spill.[19] The Irish and Russian governments still disagree over the size of the spill. The Russian Navy estimates it at 20 to 30 tons whilst the Irish Coast Guard estimates 300 tons.[10]

The Irish Coast Guard expressed disappointment that notification of the pollution incident had not been made earlier as earlier notification would have facilitated spraying and reduced potential risk. However, Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds said he accepted the delegation’s explanation. The total cost of the monitoring operation is estimated at €250,000, which the Russian Federation may contribute towards. This will depend on bilateral discussions between the Russian Federation and the Irish Government.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Siggins, Lorna (18 February 2009). "Oil slick drifts towards Irish coast as polluter silence hurts clean-up efforts". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  2. ^ a b c Siggins, Lorna (24 February 2009). "Russian navy takes blame for oil slick off coast". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Coastguard Press Release- Oil Spill fifty miles south of Fastnet". Irish Department of Transport. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  4. ^ a b c "Media exaggerating oil spill off Irish coast". RIA Novosti. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Smith, Lewis (2009-02-17). "Huge oil slick from Russian ship heads for British coastline". Times Online. London: The Times. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  6. ^ a b Sweeney, Conor (17 February 2009). "Russia denies causing oil spill off Irish coast". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  7. ^ "Oil Spill Off Ireland May Hit Irish, Welsh Shores (Update1)". Bloomberg.com. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  8. ^ "Ireland scrambles over Russian navy oil spill". Agence France-Presse. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  9. ^ a b "Oil slick may reach Wexford in 16 days". RTÉ News. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  10. ^ a b c "Russian Navy admits causing Irish oil slick". Associated Press. 27 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-28. 
  11. ^ "Mild weather may avert disaster". Press Association. 18 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Siggins, Lorna (23 February 2009). "Light fuel oil slick likely to disperse". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  13. ^ a b "County safe from major oil spillage". Wexford People. Wexford People. 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  14. ^ "Russia admits oil leak off Ireland". The Scotsman. 2009-02-28. Retrieved 2009-02-28. 
  15. ^ a b "Russian navy accepts blame for oil spill off Ireland". Agence France-Presse. 26 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  16. ^ a b Siggins, Lorna (20 February 2009). "Russian delegation to discuss oil slick". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  17. ^ "Update regarding oil pollution incident off Fastnet Rock". Irish Department of Transport. 17 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  18. ^ Siggins, Lorna (21 February 2009). "Oil slick prompts criticism of emergency planning". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  19. ^ "Russia admits Irish oil spillage". BBC News. BBC News. 2009-02-26. Retrieved 2009-02-26.