Environment

Viva cops ‘significant’ fine for ‘foreseeable’ Sydney Harbour oil spill

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Viva Energy, one of Australia’s largest energy companies, has been fined $100,000 for an oil spill in Sydney Harbour that took more than six months to clean up and was described by a judge as “foreseeable”.

The company will also be required to publish an admission it was “unaware of, and has been unable to locate records of, any inspections, testing or maintenance work” on the corroded pipeline that leaked on December 30, 2016.

The leak, at the Gore Bay fuel storage, resulted in about 800 litres of fuel oil spilling onto nearby land, with about 500 litres of that entering the waters at Gore Cove, near Greenwich, according to the judgement handed down by Justice Tim Moore in the Land and Environment Court on Friday.

The spill affected about 350 metres of the nearby shoreline, an area that supported “an assemblage of intertidal organisms, including whelks, limpets, crabs, sea snails and barnacles, along with various types of algae”, and fish habitat, the court found. The impact on aquatic life was of “moderate significance”.

Viva Energy bought the facility from Shell in 2014. The Gore Bay site has stored petroleum products since 1901.

“We regret and apologise that this incident occurred,” a Viva spokesman said, adding the company accepted the court’s decision.

“Viva Energy undertook a comprehensive investigation into the incident and  . . . we have strengthened our processes and operations to ensure a similar incident does not occur in future,” he said.

“These measures include an additional program of inspection, testing and maintenance on pipelines, and works to the concrete deck and kerb along the terminal’s water frontage.”

The fuel leaked from a “spool”, or pipeline, that was wrapped by insulation that concealed the corrosion. The company accepted in its guilty plea that the equipment was “no longer fit-for-purpose and that it had not been maintained for its intended purpose”.

“Viva had not tested or carried out maintenance work on the spool, nor inspected the surface of the spool prior to the incident,” the court heard.

The company had started removing the insulation around pipes in late-2014 but the program had not reached the pipeline that leaked.

The acting Chief Environmental Regulator at the Environment Protection Authority, Giselle Howard, welcomed Viva’s penalty as a “significant fine and one which we hope will remind all companies operating on the Harbour to make sure they prevent environmental harm”.

“Oil spills put Sydney Harbour’s marine life at risk, and this spill at Gore Bay was no exception. Shore-dwelling creatures like oysters were affected by the spill, and it took months to clean the shoreline of oil,” she said.

But Merri Southwood, head of the Greenwich Community Association, said the size of the fine was “disappointingly low and does not send a strong enough signal about the need for operators to maintain equipment to avoid such potential disasters”.

While residents remain concerned about their exclusion from oversight of the clean-up and enforcement actions, the main worry is pollution from ships docking at the site.

“Our biggest disappointment remains the inaction of the EPA and the current regulator of vessel-based emissions,” Ms Southwood said. “We still have no licence condition requiring ongoing emissions monitoring at the boundary [of the facility].”

“Residents are still reporting to us that odour is often detectable so there must be something in the air,” she said. “It may not be dangerous to human health but we have no means to confirm this.”

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