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Opinion & Analysis

A wider perspective on marine pollution

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

Years ago, as a reporter for the London-based maritime newspaper Lloyd’s List, it was my job to write about sinking ships and marine pollution. It’s pretty much all I did.

For over a decade, I covered major incidents that made headline news around the globe, including high-profile casualties such as the Erika and the Prestige, both of which scarred coastal communities for years and led to changes in global shipping rules.

I covered too lesser-known incidents that went unnoticed outside the trade press. Because the sad reality is that around the world, ships have accidents, often serious ones, pretty much every day.

The images of oil on the water around the Rock are dramatic and worrying. There is no doubt as to the harmful impact this pollution will have on the environment. Already yesterday we were seeing evidence of that, tarred seabirds and patches of drifting oil sheen in the bay.

But difficult as it might be to accept given what we’ve seen at sea, this is nonetheless a relatively small spill, and the situation is under control. Officials here and in Spain directly involved in the response have stated this repeatedly. It doesn’t sit well with the images, but it’s the reality, for now at least.

The ship was carrying 215 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, 250 tonnes of diesel fuel and 27 tonnes of lubricant oil. By midday yesterday, with the crew safely on land, salvage teams had managed to empty the ship’s diesel stores save for five tonnes needed to power onboard machinery.

Work was underway too to empty 215 tonnes of fuel stored in tanks that remain intact on the vessel. Some 80 tonnes had already been extracted by Friday evening, though one of the remaining tanks is submerged and emptying it will be prove tricky.

It’s the heavy fuel oil that is most worrying, and it was some of this sticky substance that escaped the vessel’s tanks on Thursday through two ventilation vents that had been sealed but popped after the hull cracked under the strain of tidal movements.

A marine architect once explained to me the strain on a damaged ship: Think of a can of Coke with a tear in it. Then grip it at each end and twist repeatedly in opposite directions and up and down. Something is going to give eventually.

So why, given the obvious risk of pollution, was the OS 35 beached so close to Catalan Bay?

The answer is simple. Human life matters more than oil on water.

In the past, I’ve covered cases where it sometimes felt seafarers were unimportant. I recall writing about a ship called the Kristal. It sank in exactly the same place as the Prestige, but a year later. There was no pollution that reached the shores that time, and it barely got any coverage. There was no outrage, no public uproar. But 11 men lost their lives.

After the OS 35 collided with the liquefied natural gas carrier Adam LNG off Gibraltar on Tuesday, the ship began taking on water. Had it continued on its way or tried to return to port, it would likely have sunk.

There were 24 people on board. Think about that for a minute.

Think too that had the vessel gone down to the seabed, the oil would likely have escaped sooner or later, and it would have ended up on the shoreline somewhere anyway. Even if it hadn’t, recovery would have been hugely complicated in the deep waters of the Bay of Gibraltar or the strait.

Beaching it in shallow water protected life first and foremost. It also gave authorities and salvors the best chance of working in an easily accessible location to minimise the impact of any marine pollution.

In 2002, when the tanker Prestige ran into trouble in a storm off Galicia carrying a cargo of 77,000 tonnes of fuel oil, the ship was refused a place of refuge by several countries.

Apostolos Mangouras, the tanker’s veteran captain, told me after that maritime casualty that he had initially believed the Prestige would be allowed into sheltered coastal waters. He insisted it never crossed his mind that he would be denied a place of refuge.

“I didn’t understand anything,” he told me at the time. “No one explained [the decision]. I explained that they were playing with the lives of me and my crew.”

The Prestige sank miles from shore and the ensuing spill tarred vast stretches of coastline in Spain, France and Portugal.

There has been ample criticism here and in Spain about the decision to beach the OS 35 and the pace of the response to the casualty. But maritime experts are convinced it was the right decision, as are those on either side of the border involved directly in the emergency response.

Likewise with the perceived delay in removing the fuel. With a damaged ship, it’s not just a case of coming alongside and plugging in a hose. The top priority above all else must be the safety of those involved in the salvage, and that requires measured steps and careful patience alongside speed to mitigate the environmental damage.

By the weekend, all things going well, the fuel on board should have been removed. In the meantime, the clean-up operation continues at sea.

But even empty of fuel, the ship presents a risk because tanks will have residual coatings and it is not yet clear whether the vessel can be repaired and refloated, or whether it will have to scrapped on site much as happened with the New Flame off Europa Point.

We are not out of the woods yet and there is a sense of urgency to the operation. For now, the weather has been favourable, but that won’t hold indefinitely. A levanter storm will bring another new set of challenges.

Uncomfortable as it is, we must recognise that there may well be some more pollution in the coming days, no matter how well the salvage goes.

The drama off Catalan Bay has distracted us too from an important element of the operation, one that has not always been evident in past situations like this.

From the outset, Spanish authorities have offered assistance and cooperated closely with their Gibraltarian counterparts, setting aside underlying political tensions in the knowledge that marine pollution knows no borders.

Despite some criticism, this cooperation has been recognised publicly on a number of occasions by Spanish national ministers and by other Spanish politicians closer to home, as well as by the authorities here.

The OS 35 casualty should serve to build on that going forward, more so at a time when Brexit has forced us to rethink cross-border relations, hopefully for the better.

Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla, the president of the Junta de Andalucia, was absolutely right when he said yesterday that we must have “a calm discussion” on this coordination.

“Over and above disputes about territory and waters, the most important thing is that we have an established protocol in the event of any future incident of this type that could have even more serious consequences,” he said.

Once the salvage situation is resolved, there must also be a careful investigation into why this collision happened in the first place, and what can be done to minimise the risk of reoccurrence going forward.

The Gibraltar Government was perhaps too quick to highlight earlier this week claims that the captain of the OS 35 had ignored instructions from the port.

That will be for the investigation to establish, alongside any other factors that may have contributed. That investigation must be thorough and transparent.

Where there are responsibilities, people should be held accountable.

But this is not the first serious casualty in British waters around Gibraltar in recent years.

Where there are lessons to be learnt, we must learn them.