COLUMN | Oil on troubled waters [The Boroscope]

COLUMN | Oil on troubled waters [The Boroscope]

The supertanker Exxon Valdez after it ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989 (Photo: NOAA)

The Seven Stones Reef lies between the Scilly Isles and Lands End. It’s clearly shown on navigation charts surrounded by deep water.

Fifty-three years ago, a Suezmax tanker was heading for Milford Haven refinery in Wales with a cargo of 120,000 tonnes of Middle East crude. She didn’t have a full set of charts for the area and she was making passage between the Scillys and the mainland, when she encountered some fishing vessels.

There was some confusion between the Master and the helmsman. Was the autopilot engaged or not? Where were they exactly? While these events were unfolding the ship struck Pollard Rock on Seven Stones Reef in broad daylight.

It was the 18th of March 1967 and the ship was the supertanker Torrey Canyon. The entire cargo, one hundred and nineteen thousand tonnes of Middle East crude, was lost to the sea as the ship broke in two. The giant slick was blown eastward slowly covering the whole approach to the English Channel all the way across to France.

The spill contaminated over one hundred and twenty miles of the Cornish coast and 50 miles of the Brittany coast. Torrey Canyon would be forever remembered for the drastic changes made to marine pollution regulations, the genesis of MARPOL.

“The Torrey Canyon incident was the world’s first major oil spill and traces of the oil are still to be found today.”

At that time the only regulation that existed was the OILPOL 54 Treaty (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil), which predominantly dealt with the discharge of tank cleaning slops into the sea. There was nothing that could address a catastrophe of this size. It was even unclear who was responsible. The ship was in international waters, it was Liberian-flagged, owned by Barracuda Tankers (a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California) and on charter to BP.

By day two, the oil was starting to pollute the Cornish coastline. The oil slick had spread along beaches, rocky shorelines, coves and boat harbours, in places up to eight inches thick. The British government assumed the responsibility but they had never before been faced with a complex disaster of such magnitude.

As the slicks grew bigger, they decided to try a “dispersant” on the oil. This was an unproven product produced by Unilever, which in fact was toxic to marine life and sea birds. Thousands of people turned out as volunteers trying to assist in some way to battle the slick. Drums of this “detergent” were deployed manually, some from hastily fitted booms on fishing boats and some were even tossed off cliffs into inaccessible areas.

Over 10,000 tonnes of what, in fact, was a toxic solvent emulsifier, were deployed with little result other than adding to the deaths of thousands of birds. The British government laughingly attempted to bomb the wreck, sink it and burn the oil in the process. They even deployed napalm to accelerate the burning. The Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm came under some ridicule as forty-two bombs missed the oil spill completely, a visible stationary target in daylight hours.

It was an ill-advised and embarrassing failure. This was the world’s first major oil spill and traces of the oil are still to be found today.

“Yet again the authorities were ill-prepared for a catastrophe of such a size.”

The up-shot of this catastrophe was a hastily convened, extraordinary meeting of IMO (IMCO as it was known then) to begin formulating what was to become the MARPOL Convention. In Britain, it led to the creation of the UK Department of Environment and the signing of the Convention on Civil Liberty for Oil Pollution Damage (known as the CLC).

Eleven years later, almost to the day, another tanker laden with 223,000 tonnes of Middle East crude bound for Rotterdam came aground after losing steering in a force 10 storm on the northern tip of the French coast.

Amoco Cadiz struck Portsall Rocks only about three miles off Brittany on March 16, 1978, initially breaking in half and losing its entire cargo of 223,000 tonnes of crude oil, resulting in the greatest environmental disaster of the time. It was the largest loss of sea life ever recorded after an oil spill at that time.

Yet again the authorities were ill-prepared for a catastrophe of such a size – almost twice the volume of oil lost from Torrey Canyon. Seven thousand volunteers turned out but the extent was so vast that they had little chance of success. The ship was finally depth charged to sink it, causing it to break up further.

The ship was owned by Amoco’s parent company, Standard Oil of Indiana, again Liberian-flagged and carrying a cargo for Shell. Amoco was sued for damages by the French authorities and ultimately after many years of litigation, the French were compensated for their losses.

Again, IMCO furiously worked at a set of regulations based upon a “never again” scenario. These two ships set in train the MARPOL 73/78 Convention, which ultimately came into force in 1983.

Exxon Valdez lost 37,000 tonnes of crude causing an oil spill that resulted in the worst environmental damage ever experienced.”

Fast forward another eleven years, again almost to the day, and yet another tanker was straying from its course in the shipping channel to avoid icebergs when it struck Bligh Reef in the pristine wilderness of Prince William Sound, Alaska. It was on the 24th of March 1989 and the ship was Exxon Valdez. She lost 37,000 tonnes of crude causing an oil spill that resulted in the worst environmental damage ever experienced, covering 2,100 kilometres of coast and damaging the habitats of salmon, sea otters, seals and birdlife.

When the overland pipeline to the port of Valdez was built, the US government of the day pronounced that safety of the environment was paramount. The use of doubled hulled tankers was discussed but never enforced. And yet again the immensity of the disaster overwhelmed the responders to the spill. There was no immediate tactical responsibility for the loss, and no specific management plan was activated (although it supposedly existed). And again, the response was too slow.

At the time, the Exxon Valdez disaster recorded the highest ever total cost for the salvage effort, clean-up costs and punitive damages. There were a number of critical findings to come out of the investigation. Exxon was found wanting in a number of vital areas including failure to repair the RAYCAS iceberg collision avoidance radar, which had been out of action for over a year. The ship’s track was supposed to be monitored by the US Coast Guard to maintain its position in the channel, but it wasn’t.

In addition, the press falsely accused the master, Joseph Hazelwood, of being intoxicated. He was later exonerated but the stigma and the ultimate responsibility for the spill remained. Exxon claimed it spent an estimated US$3 billion on clean-up costs and civil and criminal charges. In a series of long drawn-out appeals to court decisions Exxon finally had the punitive damages reduced from US$4.5 billion to US$507 million. The company conveniently omitted to mention that much of the costs were recovered from the insurers.

In the US, OPA 90 (the Oil Pollution Act) was legislated, and the “Polluter Pays” principle was enacted. Ultimately the IMO and the MARPOL Convention mandated that all tankers above 5,000 GRT shall be double hulled. There was no grandfather provision in this ruling and single-hulled tankers were systematically phased out from that time.

It’s a strange and uncanny coincidence how these three notorious ships suffered major losses, each separated by eleven years and all occurring within an eight-day window in March. Each of these events led to the IMO enacting and revising the MARPOL Convention, tragically after all the events.

“These are the tankers we remember by name, for no other reason than their losses led to huge regulatory changes and changes to the design of hulls and navigational controls.”

Ten years on, in 1999, the Maltese-flagged Erika broke in two in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, releasing 20,000 tonnes of crude, killing sea life and causing major pollution on the Brittany coast. And then two years later, in 2002, the 26-year-old Prestige ruptured a cargo tank and began leaking oil.

This controversial casualty was one that caused great angst among the nations involved. The ship was found to be structurally unsound and the American Bureau of Shipping, the classification society that certified the ship’s hull for seaworthiness, was heavily criticised. The ship’s crew were taken off and a veteran captain boarded the drifting ship which was now only four miles from the Spanish coast. He argued that the ship should be towed into port where the leak could be boomed off and the damaged hull repaired. However, the Spanish Navy ordered the vessel away from its coast.

With the Amoco Cadiz and the Erika disasters still fresh in their minds, officials of the French government would not countenance another major oil spill on their shores. And finally, the Portuguese Navy followed suit insisting that it was not their problem. Ultimately, the ship was towed into deep water, where it broke in two and sank. Oil is still seeping from the wreck to this day. This case highlighted the need for an international agreement for Ports of Refuge. This has finally been ratified.

These are the tankers we remember by name, for no other reason than their losses led to huge regulatory changes and changes to the design of hulls and navigational controls. Today there is less than 0.1 per cent of crude cargo lost from sea-transport of oil yet the volumes shipped since the early days of Torrey Canyon have grown enormously.

Today the demand for energy in the form of oil continues to grow as more and more countries develop. And the oil keeps coming as technology and investment grows. There are so many so more untapped oil reserves in the world today. “Mankind will become extinct before the world runs out of oil,” a friend of mine, a long serving Chevron man, once said.

One wonders what might have happened had any of these disasters not happened. Today, tankers are bigger and there are more around today than ever before. The Saudi-owned Bahri Oil has the world’s largest VLCC fleet (42 of these giants) yet not one ship is a household name. Only the notorious ones are remembered. Torrey Canyon,  Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Vadez, Erika and Prestige – five ships that will be forever remembered as the tragic catalysts for change.

See more stories from this month’s Pollution Control Week here.

Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.