Palm oil “calamity” raises concerns

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A spillage of a foamy white substance later established to be palm oil that covered a 20 kilometer stretch of coast in the Eastern Algarve has raised concerns regarding the ability of regional authorities to respond to such incidents after the general public was called upon to help clear the mess.

Hundreds of people including local Scout groups responded to the call and spent most of the latter end of last week and the weekend clearing up the clumps of foam. The first signs of a spill emerged on Tuesday, 3 January, when the frothy substance started washing up along the Ria Formosa and its Armona, Culatra, Farol and Deserta islands in the municipalities of Faro and Olhão.

Analysis determined the substance to be palm oil, which is not toxic and does not pose a threat to the public, animals or the environment.The SOS Ria Formosa association, established to defend the best interests of the natural protected area, was involved in meetings with local port and coast authorities, environment agencies and civil protection entities.

“Following this calamity that struck the barrier islands we decided to all cooperate in this and therefore we are putting together a group of residents and island-lovers who are to disperse among the various affected local communities to clean our beaches”, the association said in a statement.

A note sent out on Monday by Olhão Council said the pollution had been cleared “thanks to the action of volunteers and authorities.” “The debris that started to wash onto the coast and pollute the sands of the Ria Formosa barrier islands has already been eliminated. Thanks to the prompt intervention of the competent authorities and a significant number of volunteers who took to the site, the polluting tide of a substance that has come to be identified as palm oil, which has partially solidified due to the low temperatures, has been cleaned up, and the environmental threat eliminated”, it read.

However, the Algarve Surf and Marine Activities Association (ASMAA) has queried whether the region’s authorities are properly equipped to deal with a real oil spill.

“Although the Port officials in Olhão were quick on the scene, and other various supporting environmental, civic organisations and local councils were soon involved as well, what really worries us at ASMAA, was the urgent call put out by Rui Nunes Ferreira, the Commandant of Olhão Port for volunteers to help cleanup the mess which covered over five kilometres of beach area”, the association explained in a post on its blog.

It added: “Looking back to October last year, when the exercise and mini conference ‘Preserving the Marine Environment’ was conducted in Portimão as a proof that Portugal was capable of dealing with any environmental disasters resulting from oil slicks, what happened last week clearly negates these assurances.

“After the exercise, we were left with the idea that Portugal had the full human resources capacity to deal with such oil spills, without having to depend on civilians as volunteers to help. But if we had any doubts, it is now clear that the Algarve is not really fully equipped or prepared to deal with the risks of spills from oil exploration or transportation without the full support of ‘untrained’ volunteers from the public.”

Authorities are now trying to establish the origin of the spill, which could entail punishment whether it was intentional or accidental.

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