Exercise Bittern, a MCA led counter pollution exercise, is designed to test both the functionality of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency temporarily established Marine Response Centre (MRC), and key elements of the shoreline response mechanisms triggered by the Suffolk County Authorities. 

Officials being shown a display of the counter pollution equipment used.

Overflight by two MCA contracted counter pollution aircraft close to Southwold Pier.

Picture: James Bass

Counter pollution exercise held in Southwold

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
8.59 AM

A counter pollution exercise was held in Southwold yesterday to demonstrate how the north Suffolk resort could be spared in the event of a major oil spill up to 12 miles out at sea.

Exercise Bittern was organised by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and saw the agency team up with local councils to tackle a fictional 300 tonne oil slick threatening Southwold.

As well as testing out extensive response mechanisms the exercise was also used to reassure people living off Sole Bay that emergency measures could handle a leak from tankers which have become a common sight in the area as they transfer oil between them.

In May, Southwold became the only place in the country, outside harbour waters, where ship to ship oil transfers can take place in territorial waters.

Before the decision was made fears had been raised by people in Southwold that any potential oil spills from the giant vessels would devastate the region’s environment and tourism business.

Yesterday’s exercise saw two planes, a Cessna and a DC3, pretend to drop dispersal spray by Southwold Pier at a height of 100ft in an effort to stop the mock spill.

And as well as MCA staff and council officials setting up a mock shoreline and response centre, the exercise also saw a wide range of pollution control equipment displayed on the seafront, including booms, oil skimmers, amphibious vehicle.

The exercise showed how the equipment could reach Southwold within five hours in the event of a major oil spill which would trigger a national contingency plan. And as the MCA showed off equipment, it was keen to point out that the chance of a oil leak from a ship to ship transfer is extremely slim.

Dougie MacDonald, MCA’s head of pollution control and aviation operations, said: “The risk from this type of operation is very, very low - the likelihood is very, very low.

“The exercise demonstrates to the people of Southwold that we have a stockpile of equipment which can reach the area in four to five hours and we have organisations which can prevent oil from beaching.”

The MP for Suffolk Coastal Dr Therese Coffey monitored the exercise and inspected the pollution control equipment. She said it was “reassuring” to see the measures that could be put in place in case of a potential oil spill and that it was “a confidence builder” for the region.

Also at the exercise was Simon Tobin from the Community Emergency Group for Southwold and Reydon. He said: “I am very impressed with what I have seen today. It will give a lot of reassurance to people in Southwold.”

The full de-briefing of Exercise Bittern will be released on December 5,