Kayaks prove a versatile tool in spill cleanup


By Cliff Holland and Charles Ross

Lightweight and highly maneuverable kayaks are becoming increasingly popular as vehicles to deal with spills of hazardous chemicals and petroleum products.

“We’re familiar with kayaks being used for all sorts of recreation,” said Cliff Holland, environmental director of Spill Management Inc. “But we’re still not used to thinking of them as a serious working vessel that can play a big part in averting an environmental tragedy from a chemical spill.”

Holland’s firm has provided site-specific and product-specific response training for 25 years to a wide range of clients, including mining and forestry interests, industry and the military, where potential spills to waterways are a major concern, particularly in remote areas.

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“When we design training programs, one of our focuses is on selecting supplies and equipment that have multiple and diversified applications and are appropriate for the site and potential problems,” said Holland. “When response time is a critical factor, you can’t always count on having everything you would like on hand, particularly when you’re away from urban areas.”

As response teams must be able to improvise spill control measures in a variety of weather and terrain conditions and site accessibility, kayaks can be a big help in spill response.

Holland is familiar with the challenges of dealing with spills on water. He has used small watercraft and inflatable dinghies for cleanups in boat slips and along shorelines for a number of years.

Ten years ago, Holland decided that much smaller craft were a better choice for a variety of spill response training. The composite hulls of Pelican kayaks were compatible with the chemicals they would come in contact with. The low-profile watercraft is stable for trainees and can be easily stored in a hazmat trailer.
Spill Management now has three kayaks, for emergency plans and for training. They were recently used in site-specific training programs for a mining company in northern Ontario and a pipeline company in the Canadian Rockies.

One unit is used for water sampling, reconnaissance, inspecting areas for boom deployment and evaluating changing conditions on the water. A second is used for moving supplies and equipment to various staging areas, as well as spill cleanup and recovery and shoreline cleanup. The third is a two-person unit that is used to help concentrate spills in calm water and for boom deployment and recovery.

The craft can easily be stored in a large trailer and are very light and easy to move so that they can be deployed in minutes. If conditions are too rough to use a kayak, they are too rough to slow, divert, contain and recover oil spill products. Responders may have to move downstream from a spill to find tranquil waters, such as a pond or lake, where large boats may not be a good choice.

“At a hydro generation dam in northern Ontario, we had a kayak working with two power boats during a training exercise to recover a spill. The kayak was able to go into shallow water along the shoreline where the power boats couldn’t go,” said Holland. “During the exercise the large powerboat was blown into the spill holding area as it tried to maneuver in shallow, rocky water. In real life, this could have resulted in the spilled material once again being released.”

Spill Management has also used a kayak as a sled to transport supplies and equipment to a spill site. It actually performed better than a sled as the shape of its hull prevented it from digging into the ground and helped to maintain side-to-side stability. Once at the site, the kayak could be used on the water, or it could be used to transport injured personnel back to where they could receive medical assistance.

During training at a pipeline company, a kayak was used for secondary containment to catch a transportation spill. While the training spill was only water, it could have been a vehicle fuel tank that was leaking or an oil drum being transported.

These lightweight and easily maneuverable kayaks allow responders to quickly deploy booms on a body of water, since they are very maneuverable and unsinkable. The ease of using a kayak means that booms can be quickly placed to contain a spill and make recovery easier.

“We’ve got to look at innovative ways of meeting our environmental protection challenges,” said Holland. “If something like a kayak can work well in training, it is going to work well in the real world. I believe that kayaks can play bigger and bigger roles in spill response on water because they are light and easy to transport, versatile and often very reasonably priced.”

For more information visit: This article appeared in ES&E’s January/February 2015 issue.

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