How to Avoid Oil Pollution From Ships?

In spite of several legislations, ship/shore checklists, MARPOL regulations, we keep hearing about various incidents of oil, sewage and garbage pollution at the sea. Such incidents keep confronting us from time to time. Whether it’s the ship’s fault or not, a single drop of oil in the seawater can send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned seafarers.

We are often left vulnerable to the mistakes of others even though our intentions are noble and actions strictly professional. In my case having encountered a variety of management systems and types of seamen, I always made my intentions clear to the authority before joining a vessel about my total commitment to environment protection and also that any contradictory orders from the management shall be strictly defied and ignored.

Similarly, on board ships I gave full assurance to my crew after joining that they were free to walk in with full confidence into my office if he or she ever found any incident of pollution either accidental or intentional and he /she shall be fully protected. Such words of advice always boosted the morale of the crew on board and the accidents were greatly minimized.

However, in spite of my best efforts and intentions of my crew while carrying out deck procedures, oil pollution incidents did happen on ships and I will explain in the following paragraphs why they happened and how they could have been avoided. Several major oil spills in the past have resulted to monstrous disasters to marine environment and human lives.

Before I begin I would like to emphasize that your ship is as good as it’s crew. You do not have the liberty to choose your own crew but  are required to develop the skills to make the best use of the crew and officers competency provided to you by the management.

Having said that, you can still not be sure if the person joining your ship has ever been trained to handle oil or chemicals, despite having the requisite certificates in his or her possession. Today we all are well aware of the quality of training for fighting oil pollution given to raw seamen joining ships for the first time.

More than training, sometimes a little common sense is enough to avoid an incident on ships but as the saying goes; common sense is not too common.

I have seen some very challenging times on my ships where oil pollution incidents were concerned. I will narrate a few of these incidents and then we will see what went wrong causing such incidents and how they could have been avoided. Most of these incidents were a product of human error resulting from lack of knowledge to handle engine room machinery  or whilehandling deck machinery equipment and procedures.

Oil Pollution Incident 1 : During heavy rain, we noticed a fine oil sheen growing close to the hull in US waters in a closed harbor.

In the above mentioned incident, the oil sheen came from the hydraulic oil leaking drop by drop from the mooring winches. The Chief Officer and his crew simply failed to notice the leak, plug it in time and notify the Chief engineer or the Master. In a stern trim, this hydraulic oil formed a sheen and collected in the rain water forming a pool at the break of accommodation. In heavy rain, the duty AB did not drain the rain water regularly nor skim the oil from the surface of water before it spilled overside or used the oil pads from the anti-pollution kit.

Oil Pollution Incident 2 : Oil sprayed from a flexible hose into a Latvian port

A chief officer under his supervision was changing the hose from 1 manifold to another and did not care to blank it after disconnecting. A little jerky movement of the crane swiveled the hose over the railings and oil within the hose was sprayed into the water. A careless mistake coupled with overconfidence.

Oil Pollution Incident 3: Oil sheen spreading from ship’s hawsers

There are several ports in this world with scant regards to oil pollution with very less oil spill response solutions.When ship go to such polluted harbors, oil in the water will pollute your hawsers and it’s prudent to give them a hard wash on deck before reusing them in the next port. Polluted hawsers can create quite a headache for the ship.

Oil Pollution Incident 4: In excessive rain in a Spanish port, oil was found in the harbor not emanating from own vessel but staining own ship side

In this incident, very heavy rain flooded a storage compartment ashore where dirty lube oil was stored. The lube oil spread all over the harbor  thus polluting all ships in the vicinity. My ship filed protests with the harbor master and it took us nearly one week to get the shore authorities remove every trace of oil from the ship side. Imagine taking a vessel with dirty hull into another country. Nobody would have cared where the oil came from as long as it came from your ship.

Oil Pollution Incident 5: Pollution from underground pipelines

In most Russian and federation ports, oil pipelines were built underground years back and due to ignorance and poor maintenance, some developed minor leakages. Russian authorities, at times unable to attend or repair such leaks, ignored them. If you do not notify them on arrival, you could be in serious trouble and also risk getting your hull fouled.

I can narrate many more incidents involving oil pollution and oil spills from ships like the above ones but what is more important here is that apart from external factors, ignorance, overconfidence or simply incompetence of the crew or shore personnel can lead to oil pollution incidents on board. Instances such as bunker overflow during bunker transfer/ship-to-shore transfer, inter-cargo tank transfers, carrying out cargo operations on tankers, hydraulic line and oil pipe lines bursting in cargo control rooms, pump room or engine room are all due to human errors, poor maintenance, lack of experience and knowledge.

The big question is can oil pollution really be avoided?

If yes, how?

The answer is quite simple and involves following few important steps as mentioned below:

  1. Prior any operation, complete your checklists and carry out the risk assessment.
  2. Conduct a briefing session with all your crew members and ensure that each crew understands his duties well during an oil transfer operation, prior to conducting such operation.
  3. Ensure an oil pollution drill has been successfully carried out and all negative points are discussed in the debriefing session post drill.
  4. Encourage your crew to ask questions during briefing and do not get irritated with these questions. Answer them and explain them truthfully.
  5. Keep all your oil anti-pollution equipment (SOPEP) handy prior arrival till you clear the territorial boundary of the port visited. Ensure all crew is aware of the location of the 12 barrel kit.
  6. The most important thing is to keep your books ready for inspection.

Do not scratch entries in your books!

Write legible and if committing an error cut with a simple line and initial it. Never use a white fluid correction ink.

Usually a ship gets into trouble many a times with port authorities on oil record books simply because the person responsible for writing these books are ignorant of the law, or simply not trained enough by the management for a complete understanding of various terms.

Lastly my word of advice, irrespective of how much threatening your superiors or management are, remain fearless. As long as you are competent to do your job and following the law, you are always on the safer side.