Belfast Telegraph

How a stream saturated with oil was rescued

By Adrian Rutherford

When thousands of litres of oil seeped into a Co Antrim stream, it threatened to turn into an ecological disaster.

But a rapid response by staff from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency meant the damage was limited to just a half-mile stretch of water.

The incident took place in March when oil began leaking from a tank at Antrim Area Hospital into the Steeple Burn, a small tributary of the Six Mile Water.

The river ran red as its surface was covered with a thick film of oil.

NIEA staff were at the scene within an hour of the alarm being raised.

"It was immediately obvious that it was a significant incident," said Conor Symington, a NIEA senior water quality inspector.

"We started to put booms in the stream – these are things which stop oil and soak it up – while we tried to work out where the oil was gaining access.

"The longer it went on the more it was obvious that a very significant quantity of oil had escaped."

Firefighters, at the scene because of the risk of fumes, went into a manhole with sandbags to stem its flow into the stream.

Around 50,000 litres of oil escaped. While most of it was stopped by the sandbags, several thousand litres still made its way into the water.

The damage was mainly contained to a half-mile stretch due to booms put in place by NIEA staff.

It meant the spill was classified as medium rather than high severity.

"As an incident it went on for several weeks," added Conor.

"Thankfully the impact didn't extend too far because we managed to catch the vast majority of oil behind our booms.

"I was out there every day for the next week and two or three times a week for the next month just to keep an eye on things."

Antrim hospital paid NIEA's costs and footed the bill for their own clean-up contractors.

According to Conor, NIEA officials and hospital contractors helped prevent a more serious pollution incident.

"Part of the stream was covered with a thick layer of oil," he said. "We had booms in three different locations, and contractors came out and sucked away the oil which was soaked up.

"They kept on doing that until the oil stopped coming down the system. Bit by bit we withdrew the booms as the clean-up progressed and the oil reduced."

The oil could have reached the base of the Six Mile Water at the Loughshore Marina, a popular tourist area, but the promoclean-up exercise prevented this.

"As a clean-up, overall it was pretty successful," said Conor.

"It was a joint effort. We got the problem contained and then the hospital and clean-up company took over and followed through."

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