Global Marine Body Deals with Shipbreaking, Oil Spills

LONDON, United Kingdom, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - The hazards of shipbreaking, single hull oil tankers, and stowaways in ships' ballast water are on the agenda this week as the Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organization, the UN agency with responsibility for the safety of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships, meets in London.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is in the process of removing Greenpeace from its list of officially recognized observers, but that did not prevent the organization from making its views known to delegates arriving for the committee meeting.

The delegates were welcomed by Greenpeacers bearing a five meter (16 foot) long sculpture made from the remains of ships taken from Indian shipbreaking yards.


Sculpture dramatizing the hazards of shipbreaking is displayed as delegates enter the International Maritime Organization meeting today in London. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The sculpture contains the funnels of five old ships, one of which exploded in the yard at Alang, India in February, killing nine people and causing more than a dozen serious injuries.

Greenpeace says the ship, the Amina, contained hazardous gas and other toxic substances, and the organization blames the Greek owner, Chandris Lines, for declining responsibility for the way the ship was delivered.

This week, under the chairmanship of Andreas Chrysostomou of Cyprus, the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee is expected to finalize the draft IMO Guidelines on Ship Recycling for submission to the 23rd IMO Assembly later this year for adoption.

The draft guidelines recognize that, while the principle of ship recycling may be sound, "the working practices and environmental standards in the yards often leave much to be desired," the committee said.

Responsibility for conditions in the yards lies with the countries in which they are located, the committee said, but other stakeholders must contribute towards minimizing potential problems in the yards.


Indian shipbreaking workers at the Alang shipyard (Photo by Shailandra Yeshwant)
The draft guidelines are voluntary rather than mandatory in emphasis. They will give advice to all stakeholders in the recycling process, including administrations of ship building and maritime equipment supplying countries, flag, port and recycling states, as well as intergovernmental organizations and commercial bodies such as shipowners, ship builders, repairers and recycling yards.

But Ramapati Kumar from Greenpeace India said today that the voluntary measures proposed by the IMO will not protect the people or the environment in Asia. He called on the IMO to establish a legally binding regime to govern shipbreaking recycling, which he termed "a form of waste trade."

"With this sculpture we want to make clear that this lethal business of sending toxic ships to Asia and elsewhere without cleaning them first is a lethal business that needs to stop," Kumar said. "Some ship owners and others in the shipping industry have told Greenpeace that they too want mandatory rules to provide a level playing field."

The ships sent for scrapping contain asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, and oil harmful to human health and the environment. The presence of other substances, such as fuel or gases in the ships' tanks increases the risk of explosion and other accidents putting the safety of workers at risk, Kumar said.

Phaseout of Single Hull Tankers

The committee will consider submissions by all the 15 member states of the European Union, to accelerate the phaseout timetable for older single hull tankers. The proposal arose after the oil spills that contaminated the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal after the sinking of the tanker "Prestige" last November and the "Erika" in December 1999.


The single hull oil tanker "Prestige" wallows in heavy seas off the coast of Spain. November 2002 (Photo courtesy Xunta de Galicia)
The phaseout of single hull tankers would require amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as the MARPOL Convention.

The European countries have proposed an immediate ban on the carriage of heavy grades of oil in single hull tankers and for the Condition Assessment Scheme, adopted in 2001 in the wake of the Erika incident, to be applied to tankers of 15 years of age and above.

To ensure that delegates of the 162 countries that belong to the IMO have as much relevant information as possible to hand when they consider the proposals, IMO Secretary-General William O'Neil reactivated the Informal Group of Experts, first commissioned in 2000 to assess the likely effect of post-Erika proposals, to study the impact of the new proposals now submitted.

The completed study, undertaken by independent experts nominated by industry organizations, is available to delegates when they consider the new proposals this week.

The study covers the volume of oil and oil products carried by oil tankers worldwide and by region, the number of single hull tankers to be affected by the proposals, the capacity of shipyards needed to replace the single hull tankers that would be withdrawn from service compared with the capacity of shipyards available worldwide, and the annual scrapping capacity of ship recycling facilities.

A proposal for Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom to formally designate a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) to cover a wide area west of these countries in the Atlantic Ocean is also up for discussion by the committee this week. The proposal would prohibit the carriage of heavy oils by single hull tankers in this area.

The committee will also consider a proposal from Australia and Papua New Guinea for the extension of the Great Barrier Reef PSSA to cover the Torres Strait Region, together with the associated protective measures.

Another proposal would create the Paracas National Reserve PSSA off Peru's Pacific coast. Paracas is the only protected coastal marine system in Peru, supporting fish, birds, and marine mammals such as whales, sea lions and sea otters.

Stowaways in Ballast Water

To deal with the problem of harmful aquatic organisms in ships' ballast water, the Marine Environment Protection Committee will review in detail a draft International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments.

It is expected that the draft treaty will be finalized at this session through the Ballast Water Working Group for circulation to the planned diplomatic conference, set to be held in early 2004.

In order to maintain stability during transit, ships fill their ballast tanks with water. Large ships may carry millions of gallons of ballast water taken from coastal port areas and transport it to the next port of call, where the water may be discharged or exchanged.


A ship releases ballast water at a New England port. (Photo courtesy L. David Smith and MIT Sea Grant Center for Coastal Resources)
As a ship takes on ballast water it also loads organisms living in that water, from microscopic plants and animals to mussels, crabs, and fish.

Scientists estimate that as many as 3,000 alien species per day are transported in ships around the world in their ballast water Some of the species that survive the trip thrive in the environment where they are discharged, causing disruptions in the natural ecosystem, economic problems, and human diseases.

Ballast water from the United States New England coast introduced into the Black Sea a comb jellyfish that feeds on anything smaller than itself. In its new environment, the comb jelly has no natural predators and has outcompeted native species for food. As a consequence, the once profitable anchovy fisheries in Russia and Turkey have almost disappeared.

Tiny zebra mussels from European ships have invaded the Great Lakes between the United States and Canada. These organisms form large clumps which can clog water intake pipes and damage other structures. The United States now requires all ships traveling in the Great Lakes or the Hudson River to exchange ballast water in the open ocean before entering these waterways.

The issue of harmful aquatic organisms in ships' ballast water was first raised at the IMO in 1988. Shipping moves over 80 percent of the world’s commodities and transfers some three to five billion metric tons of ballast water internationally each year.

The problem of invasive species is due to the expanded trade and traffic volume over the last few decades, the IMO says, and volumes of seaborne trade continue overall to increase, so the problem may not yet have reached its peak.

In order to help developing countries understand the problem and monitor the situation, IMO, together with other UN agencies, is implementing the Global Ballast Water Management Program and has provided technical support and expertise to these countries.

Putting an End to Organotin Compounds

The Marine Environment Protection Committee will review for adoption two sets of draft guidelines relating to the 2001 International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships - draft guidelines for brief sampling of anti-fouling systems, and draft guidelines for inspections of ships anti-fouling systems.


Worker coats the bottom of a vessel with an organotin compound to keep organisms from attaching themselves to the hull. (Photo courtesy University of Scranton)
A new IMO convention will prohibit the use of harmful organotins in anti-fouling paints used on ships and will establish a mechanism to prevent the potential future use of other harmful substances in anti-fouling systems. The harmful environmental effects of organotin compounds were recognized by the IMO in 1989.

Anti-fouling paints are used to coat the bottoms of ships to prevent sealife such as algae and molluscs attaching themselves to the hull, where they slow the ships down and increase fuel consumption.

These compounds slowly leach into the sea water, killing barnacles and other marine life that have attached to the ship. But the studies have shown that these compounds persist in the water, killing sea life, harming the environment and possibly entering the food chain. One of the most effective anti-fouling paints, developed in the 1960s, contains the organotin tributyl tin, which has been proven to cause deformations in oysters and sex changes in whelks.

In November 1999, the IMO adopted a resolution that called on the Marine Environment Protection Committee to develop an instrument, legally binding throughout the world, to address the harmful effects of anti-fouling systems used on ships.

The resolution called for a global prohibition on the application of organotin compounds which act as biocides in anti-fouling systems on ships by January 1, 2003, and a complete prohibition by January 1, 2008.