The 'International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-Operation 1990 (OPRC 1990)' and the 'Protocol on Preparedness, Response and Co-Operation to Pollution Incidents by Hazardous and Noxious Substances (OPRC-HNS 2000), are two international legal instruments drawn by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Malta acceded to both in 2003.

Together, the OPRC Convention and the OPRC-HNS Protocol create a regulatory framework on pollution incidents caused by oil (meaning petroleum in any form) or by hazardous and noxious substances other than oil (such as chemicals), likely to cause detrimental affects to human health and marine life once released into the marine environment and which require an immediate response.

The OPRC Convention and the OPRC-HNS Protocol address the handling of marine pollution incidents on both a national and international level.

At an international level, State parties may request assistance from any other State party when encountering a major pollution incident. Additionally, State parties are encouraged to establish multilateral or bilateral agreements for pollution preparedness and response as well as to cooperate in research and development programmes including on methods and technologies developed to combat pollution incidents.

On a national scale, both the OPRC Convention and the OPRC-HNS Protocol oblige State parties to set up a national system for responding to oil and HNS pollution incidents, including through the appointment of a designated national authority and the drawing up of a national contingency plan supported by response equipment, communication channels, regular training and exercises.

In this respect, the 'Oil and Hazardous and Noxious Substances Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-Operation Regulations' were recently enacted in Malta through Legal Notice 450 of 2020 (the "Regulations").  The Regulations came into force on the 1st of January 2021. Prior to the publication of the Regulations, Port Notice No.16 of 2020 issued by Transport Malta notified all relevant persons of the eventual application of the Regulations and invited all marine terminals and marine facilities " take stock of their current status of preparedness and carry out a risk assessment to either update plans which are ready in place or to start drawing up new plans, whichever may be the case.".

The Regulations apply, in varying degrees, to the Authority for Transport in Malta, to operators of marine terminals (briefly, places where dangerous cargoes, bunkers and substances are loaded, discharged or handled on board ships) and operators of marine facilities (briefly, places other than a marine terminal where ships obtain services such as tank cleaning and slop/residue removal) based in Malta, to yacht marinas based in Malta, and to ships, including offshore units, whilst in the territorial waters of Malta.

The Authority for Transport in Malta (Transport Malta) is the 'National Competent Authority' charged with the responsibility of creating, implementing, maintaining, updating, and enforcing the 'National Marine Pollution Contingency Plan' (NMPCP).

The NMPCP is awarded the force of law by the Regulations and is therefore to be considered as part of and enforceable as the laws of Malta.

In its role as 'National Competent Authority', Transport Malta enjoys several powers and functions. These include approving pollution emergency plans of marine terminals and facilities, assisting such operators in the development of the said plans, monitoring their implementation as well as ordering any changes thereto. Additionally, Transport Malta shall have the power to organise periodical national training and drills in pollution emergency and response with the participation of personnel from local operators.

Operators of marine terminals, facilities and/or yacht marinas are obliged to each have a separate marine pollution response emergency plan which is to be submitted for approval to Transport Malta. Existing operators are to do so by the 31st of December 2021. Pollution emergency plans must be in line with the NMPCP and should be constantly updated to address any changes in the activities or the risks of the operator. In any event, a pollution emergency plan is to be revised every five years while operators are obliged to inform Transport Malta and submit a new plan or amendments to the existing plan within three months from the occurrence of any major changes that affect or could affect the material validity or effectiveness of the emergency pollution plan in question.

Operators are obliged to identify an individual within their organization who shall be responsible for the operator's pollution emergency plan and who shall be the point of contact between the operator and Transport Malta.

Furthermore, the keeping of minimum level first-aid pollution response equipment, training of personnel and the carrying out of drills is expected of all operators.

Often, a marine pollution incident extends beyond the confines of an operator's terminal or facility. Therefore, a coordinated effort between one or more operators and Transport Malta is needed. On this note, the Regulations allow the drawing up of joint pollution emergency plans within the same port area.

For those ports or areas which are not under the management of private operators and are under the administration and management of Transport Malta, pollution emergency plans are to be prepared by TM by the 31st of December 2021.

Operators of marine terminals, facilities, and yacht marinas as well as masters of vessels navigating within Maltese waters are saddled with the obligation of reporting any marine pollution incident to Transport Malta. The duty to report also extends to masters of vessels located within Malta's contiguous zone – briefly, this is an area extending to 24 nautical miles from Malta's coasts over which Malta may exercise certain powers, as permitted under international law, including as provided under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (1982). This includes the power to exercise the control necessary to prevent any contravention of any law relating to pollution. Extending the right to report marine pollution incidents to vessels within Malta's contiguous zone acts as an additional safeguard against pollution incidents by creating an added 'buffer zone' before any pollution hits Malta's coasts.

The Regulations do not exclude the applicability of any other obligations concerning pollution or on any related matters to the persons concerned. Therefore, for instance, operators of marine terminals and marine facilities are still obliged to adhere to the relevant provisions contained in the Dangerous Cargo Ships, Marine Terminals and Facilities and Bunkering Regulations (Legal Notice 1 of 1996, as amended). In fact, the Regulations specify that the pollution emergency plans of marine terminals and marine facilities are to include the applicable obligations under the 'Dangerous Cargo Ships, Marine Terminals and Facilities and Bunkering Regulations'. With respect to ships, the 'Safety Management System' adopted onboard ships in accordance with the ISM Code remains relevant in so far as pollution prevention in ship operations are concerned.

Failure to comply with the Regulations is an offence and non-compliant operators are subject to a fine upon conviction. Additionally, Transport Malta may impose administrative fines.

Earlier this year, Transport Malta organised an informative webinar together with the Malta Maritime Forum to introduce the Regulations. It is understood that Transport Malta is presently updating the NMPCP and its port plans. Moreover, a guidance document on the implementation of the Regulations to marine terminals, facilities, and yacht marinas is expected to be published.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.