In Focus: Oil Spill in Suðureyri

eider duck Iceland

“I still smell like diesel oil”Over 9,000 litres of diesel oil spilt into Suðureyri harbour in the Westfjords on Thursday, March 3. The leak, which originated from a reserve tank* owned by the power company Orkubú Vestfjarða, was discovered by residents the following morning.They could smell it.“I still smell like diesel oil, despite having showered […]

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Oil Spill in Westfjords Cleaned Up

Suðureyri harbour

The diesel oil that leaked from a reserve tank into Suðureyri harbour, in the Westfjords, has now been cleaned up, RÚV reports. The location will be monitored to determine whether there is still contamination once the snow melts.

Over 9,000 litres of diesel oil spilt into Suðureyri harbour on Thursday, March 3, more than two weeks ago. The leak, which originated from a reserve tank owned by the power company Orkubú Vestfjarða – and which was buried in snow – was discovered by residents the following morning.

The oil found its way into a pond near the local swimming pool, and from there into the harbour. It wasn’t until three days after the leak was reported that hoses were placed in the water to try to prevent the leak from spreading. The oil was particularly harmful to local birdlife: hundreds of eider ducks died or had to be put down as a result of the oil, though some were saved thanks to locals’ efforts.

Sigríður Kistinsdóttir, team leader of pollution prevention at the Environment Agency of Iceland, says cleaning of the pond and harbour has gone well and will be completed this weekend. Stormy weather has also helped disperse the oil, she added.

A town meeting will be held in Suðureyri this week, where representatives of Orkubú Vestfjarða and the Westfjords Public Health Authority will be present. Residents and others involved in the clean-up efforts can attend.

The Future of Oil-Soaked Eider Ducks in Suðureyri Uncertain

Female eiderducks

A week has passed since an oil spill was reported in the town of Suðureyri in Northwest Iceland. Over the past days, residents have set up makeshift facilities to clean affected eider ducks – and have managed to save almost two dozen birds since last weekend. An expert with with the Natural Science Institute of the Westfjords believes that these efforts may only serve to protract the birds’ suffering, Fréttablaðið reports.

A quick recap

Over 9,000 litres of diesel oil spilt into Suðureyri harbour on Thursday, March 3. The leak, which originated from a reserve tank owned by the power company Orkubú Vestfjarða – and which was buried in snow – was discovered by residents the following morning.

They could smell it.

“I still smell like diesel oil, despite having showered twice since yesterday,” Auður Steinberg, a resident in Suðureyri, stated in an interview with Vísir last Sunday.

The oil found its way into a pond near the local swimming pool – which was subsequently closed alongside the elementary school – and from there into the harbour. It wasn’t until Monday, three days after the leak was reported, that hoses were submerged in water to try to prevent the leak from spreading.

Hundreds of eider ducks in bad shape

Although there was less soil pollution than initially suspected, hundreds of eider ducks were badly affected by the leak. Many of them fled the harbour, where they commonly spend their nights, onto nearby roads and neighbourhoods.

In an interview with RÚV on Wednesday, eider duck expert and Suðureyri resident Einar Mikael Sverrisson described the conditions as “nightmarish.” According to Einar, “there were hundreds of birds that needed help.”

He got to work right away.

Having converted baiting facilities into a bird-rescue centre, Einar and his neighbours had, as of yesterday, managed to save nineteen out of the twenty-eight birds that they had collected last weekend. “But over a hundred birds remain, completely helpless, most of them already dead,” Einar told Fréttablaðið in another interview yesterday.

He predicts that hundreds of birds will perish over the coming weeks and months if nothing is done.

Requested funds of six-ten million ISK

As noted in that same article published in Fréttablaðið yesterday, Suðureyri residents requested that Orkubú Vestfjarða contribute as much as ISK 10 million ($75,000 / €70,000) towards rescue operations and that the company convert a reserve power station into facilities for helping the birds.

Acting on the advice of the Westfjords Health Inspector, Elías Jónatansson – Director of Orkubú Vestfjarða – turned down the request. It wouldn’t be “realistic,” Einar told Fréttablaðið, adding that the company felt “terribly sorry” about what had happened.

“I’m not going to lie: something like this just doesn’t happen out of the blue. Something went wrong, somewhere, and we’re going to make things right. That’s for certain.”

Better to euthanise the birds

Today, a week after the leak was first reported, a veterinarian is expected to arrive in Suðureyri. Upon arrival, the veterinarian will assess whether or not the birds can be rescued – or whether the authorities will have to resort to euthanisation.

Sigurlaug Sigurðardóttir, expert with the Natural Science Institute of the Westfjords, told Fréttablaðið yesterday that there was “little to be done” in such conditions. “According to the Nature Conservation Act, it is our duty to save animals if it is possible. If it is not possible, then we are to put them to death immediately.

While expressing admiration for the work done by Suðureyri residents, Sigurlaug maintained that such efforts may only serve to protract their suffering. “They’re doing this with the best of intentions, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it’s helping.”

It is usually considered most humane to euthanise eider ducks that become soaked in oil, an article in RÚV notes. “It takes many weeks for the natural protective oils in their feathers to build up again in order to stay warm and stay afloat.”

The cleanup could take days or even weeks

The clean-up of Suðureyri harbour began on Wednesday, but the weather has made things difficult. Employees of Orkubú Vestfjarða are employing a so-called “skimmer:” a machine that sucks the oil from the water.

“We’re trying to restrict the flow of oil, to corner it, and use a skimmer to suck it up,” Sigríður Kristinsdóttir, project manager with the Environment Agency of Iceland, told RÚV yesterday.

Those working to the clean the spill have managed to stop the source of the leak, but cleaning the diesel oil from the pond and the harbour is expected to take days or even weeks.

Three Large Avalanches Sweep Through Westfjords

Three large avalanches fell in quick succession in the Westfjords of Iceland just before midnight yesterday, RÚV reports. Two fell in Flateyri and one in Súgandafjörður directly across from Suðureyri, the latter of which caused a tidal wave that struck the town. Although no one was seriously injured, properties were damaged and residents were understandably frightened.

Rescued by ICE-SAR

A teenage girl was rescued from the avalanche in Flateyri by ICE-SAR. The girl escaped without serious injury, although she had been trapped for half an hour, the avalanche having fallen on a part of her home. Her siblings, a five-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, managed to escape from the house with their mother by climbing through a window. The coast guard ship Þór transported the girl and her relatives to Ísafjörður. The girl’s condition is good, given the circumstances.

A reporter for RÚV spoke to the girl’s doctor this morning, who stated that she was both cold and tired:

“Her room was filled with snow. Thick snow. Like concrete. Fortunately, rescuers worked quickly to shovel the snow and help her escape. The girl’s mother knew exactly where she was … there was a nurse in Flateryi, very experienced, who warmed the girl.”

Small-boat harbour destroyed

The second avalanche that fell on Flateyri caused considerable damage to the harbour. Magnús Einar Manússon, director of ICE-SAR in Flateyri, described the damage in an interview with Vísir:

“The small boat harbour is gone. All of the boats have sunk. We estimate that seven boats have sunk or are half-submerged by the harbour,” he stated.

Gísli Jón Kristjánsson, the owner of Alda ÍS, the only vessel that was not destroyed on the Flateyri harbour, told RÚV that the avalanche had obviously been quite powerful:

“The entire fleet is gone and so is the floating dock. It must have been quite the blow; there’s a lot of snow on the harbour. It’s a catastrophe.”

An orange weather alert is still in effect for parts of the Westfjords. Roads leading in and out of Ísafjörður are impassable. No flights will depart from the Ísafjörður Airport today. Travellers in the area are encouraged to monitor conditions on Safetravel.

Disaster Relief

Flateyri residents reacted quickly to the avalanche but were quite taken aback; 25 years ago, on October 26, 20 people died when a comparable avalanche struck the town. Protective walls that were erected following the avalanche in 1995 appeared to have prevented the avalanches from causing further damage. The walls were not, however, designed to protect the harbour.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir spoke to RÚV this morning:

“I think all of us are startled. I took the time this morning, as soon as I heard the news, to contact a few residents in the Westfjords. Everyone is, of course, quite startled, recalling the events of 1995, which are still fresh in our memory.”

The Icelandic Red Cross has opened disaster relief centres in Flateyri, Suðureyri, and Ísafjörður, offering relief to residents who have been asked to evacuate due to avalanche warnings. 45 individuals are currently seeking refuge in Ísafjörður and nine in Suðureyri. The centre in Flateyri will open at 1 pm today. According to Helena Skaptason Jónsdóttir, a psychologist with the Icelandic Red Cross, crisis counsellours will be assisting residents throughout the day.

Tidal Wave

The tidal wave caused by the avalanche in Súgandafjörður did not cause significant damage to the town of Suðureyri. Ocean water flooded a single house and encroached on a nearby road.

This article will be updated.