LETTERS | Wakashio debate continues

Wakashio. Photo: Panama Maritime Authority

Dear editor,

I enjoyed reading the letter from Stephen Spark. I agree that Mr Degnarain has a poor understanding of the shipping industry. However, he has an excellent understanding of the oil spill industry, to which the shipping industry is joined at the hip. The shipping industry should pay close attention to Mr Degnarain’s writing on the oil spill industry even if they (rightfully) ignore the rest. The oil spill industry on the ocean has always been a fraud and a failure. This reflects badly on the shipping industry.

Today’s “best practices” are the same as they were 10 years ago, and for 40 years before that. Their average success rate has always been only five per cent.

Here they are:

The current oil spill in Mauritius shows the writing on the wall, and the shipping industry has been left far behind.

This oil spill expert is spewing dangerous and misleading nonsense (minutes 1:28 to 2:30). The Wakashio “fuel oil” that he and his laughing colleagues are playing with has emulsified into an oil-water mix that is mostly water and has lost most of the toxic elements present in fresh bunker C. Fresh Wakashio fuel oil is extremely toxic and looks like this (sticky and black).

Here are more videos of the UN “expert” (and here). He clearly has little idea of what is happening, or he is a dangerous liar.

I suggest that the shipping industry go beyond the forever failed status quo and demand the deployment of 21st century oil spill technology, and thereby lead the world on ocean protection. A failed oil spill cleanup is always named after the ship, not the incompetent and deceitful oil spill experts. Such modern equipment will include the latest in automation and create a new class of ships for the shipping industry.

Please give my regards to Mr Spark for taking the time to write about an important issue.

Very best regards,

David Prior

President, Extreme Spill Technology 

Halifax, Canada

Stephen Spark responds:

Of course, Mr Prior is right in terms of oil. However, the cleanliness of the world’s oceans is, I believe, everyone’s responsibility, not solely that of the shipping industry. Rather than finger-pointing – which just encourages people to adopt defensive postures – we need a much broader approach, by a whole range of industries and organisations. Co-operation rather than confrontation is what produces the best results most efficiently.

Some years ago, on my way from Seychelles to Mauritius a few hours after a major storm, I was struck by the way discoloured water from Mauritius’ rivers plumed far out to sea. The discolouration wasn’t the problem – that was simply from the red earth – it was what you couldn’t see that posed the greatest risk to marine life. Those plumes contain large amounts of land-based fertiliser washed off the canefields (fish yields have fallen year-on-year in the east coast lagoon), harmful runoff from roads and industry such as dye-laden liquid waste from the garment industry, and plastic and other rubbish that people either dump directly in the sea or that’s washed off the land.

The water surface at Caudan in Port Louis harbour is sometimes covered in plastic bottles and other rubbish. And of course we have to add to that microplastics from cosmetics and any amount of nasty stuff we all wash down the plughole without a thought and which finds its way into the sea.

So, yes, shipping has a lot more to do, especially as regards oil-based pollution. However, contrary perhaps to Mr Degnarain’s belief, the industry doesn’t function like a monolithic body. Nor is the IMO the world’s oceanic policeman able to act like Batman, flying around the globe to rescue baby dolphins and beat recalcitrant shipowners with a big stick!

The IMO, as we know, operates through consensus, which is arrived at, often slowly and painfully, through member states with competing and divergent interests agreeing on something for the common good. It’s an imperfect system and, as I am sure even SG Kitack Lim would agree, an imperfect body, but it’s the best we have and if there was a better way of managing maritime matters I am sure we would have thought of it by now.

Nevertheless, as Mr Prior points out so convincingly, a great deal more needs to be done, and urgently. Wakashio is a very loud wake-up call about the risks we’re running. The next disaster may involve an oil or chemical products tanker, or an LNG carrier. The Wakashio spill and the Beirut explosion showed the perils of ignoring the dangers posed by ever larger vessels laden with dangerous products (even when in ballast) moored in city-centre harbours or transiting environmentally sensitive waters, especially those controlled by small or dysfunctional states with limited resources and poor governance.

The solutions won’t be arrived at through polemic, however, but a thorough and clear-sighted understanding of the facts. Which is where I return to my original thesis!

Best regards

Stephen Spark

Alan Loynd responds:

I agree Degnarian does better when he merely quotes experts and does not attempt to comment on their advice, but note how he gets the American expert to talk about oil being squeezed out of a hull when it is scuttled in deep water, without pointing out that the forward section of Wakashio did not contain any oil.

I am not sure how shipping and the oil spill industry are “joined at the hip”. When a ship spills oil it is the vessel’s P&I Club that takes responsibility for mitigation, almost always under government control.

I also remain unconvinced about the new generation of oil spill removal vessels. This is not new technology and I operated a similar vessel in Hong Kong 20 years ago. It worked really well, but was simply too small to do any good on a large spill. It would take a fleet of thousands of such vessels to tackle a major spill, assuming the weather was calm enough for them to operate.

Twenty years on, nobody has scaled-up the technology and, even if they do, storage of recovered oil will pose additional problems. I fear we are still in the same position as the people attempting to clear the Pacific garbage patch – the vessels will look good and engender warm and fuzzy feelings in the general population, but will not really achieve very much.

Best regards,

Alan Loynd

Managing Director, Branscombe Marine Consultants

Hong Kong

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