Historical Review of SA oil pollution service

Jan 31, 2004
Author: Terry Hutson

An historical overview of the South Africa coastal oil pollution service

No one disputes the fact that accidental marine oil spills are dramatic events, invariably having an immediate and destructive effect on the marine environment and devastating coastal eco-systems, beaches and related industries such as fishing and tourism.

Worldwide, numerous unforgettable oil spills emanating from tankers have stained the relationship between the oil industry and the public - the end-users of petroleum products, and have laid the foundations for the development of several international conventions aimed at their prevention.

It is now conventional wisdom that prevention is better than cure in as much that oil in the ship is much easier to control and handle than oil on the water. International Conventions aimed at prevention address items such as the certification and standards of ship's crews; pollution regulations; ship construction and oil pollution preparedness planning.

However, involuntary or accidental pollution arising from catastrophic circumstances requires more than law to achieve effective protection of the marine environment. Of necessity, a number of Governments have implemented additional strategies for tanker accidents and oil pollution prevention over and above their reliance on International Conventions.

In the South African context, these initiatives are more than twenty-six years old and have two main driving forces - the protection of the marine environment and the astronomical cost of cleaning up an oil spill. Whilst a good portion of these costs are recoverable from liability insurance, the residual cost of environmental damage and items excluded from the liability underwriter remain substantial and invariably end up being paid for by the State Treasury.

Private salvage companies such as SMIT and Wijsmuller from Holland and Germany's Bugsier at one time maintained tugs on permanent salvage stations strategically positioned on the major international shipping routes. Cape Town, in the sixties and early seventies, was one such popular salvage station earning substantial salvage income for the Tug Owners.

The advent of the supertanker, commensurate with the unprecedented towing needs of the rapidly expanding offshore oil exploration industry meant that new high horsepower tugs needed to be built. Instead of a tug sitting idle on salvage station, these expensive tugs were now able to secure lucrative oilrig towage contracts and ongoing employment.

The result was that salvage stations were vacated with the lead time for tug availability going from hours to days, and often weeks, meaning that salvage capability was no longer a certainty at locations that the private tug owners had previously identified as a 'hot spot' located on a major route for transiting tankers.

It was this vacating of the Cape Town salvage station by private industry and the 68,570 tonne oil spill caused by the tanker Wafra at Cape Agulhas in 1971, as well as the increasing tanker traffic and the reputation of the local seaboard as the 'Cape of Storms,' that led the then South African Department of Transport and Saftug (the Special Ships Division of national carrier Safmarine, and a predecessor of SMIT Marine South Africa) to take the pioneering initiative in 1973 of establishing a Government assisted oil pollution prevention tug service.

This consisted of the tugs John Ross and Wolraad Woltemade as well as five oil pollution patrol and dispersant spray vessels in the KUSWAG series, the whole operation coming into full swing during 1975.

The above mentioned contract, initially solely for the provision of the tug service, has now developed into a full oil pollution prevention package including the provision of specialist salvage personnel, equipment and the ability to back the local salvage tug up with locally based vessels.`

The following table depicts the number of laden supertanker incidents that this contract has handled on the South African Coast through the National Pollution Prevention and response contract

South African Coast: Supertanker Incidents
Period TankerIncidents Tonnes of Oilat Risk TankersSalved Other MajorCasualties
76-8081-8586-9091-9596-03 311620207 7,097,0003,136,0005,775,0004,664,0001,588,000 1165156 4150414519
27 Years 94 22,260,000 43 196
Number ofSTS 20 Operations 4,600,000tonne Crude oil salved by transshipment
Clarification In the 26 years of South African operations to date, 43 supertankers were salved/rescued/saved by intervention of the NDOT provided tugs. Of the 43, it was necessary to transship the crude oil cargoes of 20 of them by ‘ship to ship’ (STS) operations.

In addition to the table depicting Supertanker incidents, the table below shows other salvage activities during the period 1976-2003. These figures are important as the operations behind them assist in generating revenue to cover the operating costs of the tugs.

Type Number
Aircraft 8
Bulk Carrier 46
Car Carrier 3
Cargo/Container 53
Barges 9
Fishing Vessels 142
OBO 15
Passenger/Research 7
Tanker, including standby whilst disabled 124
Tugs 7

Over 12,500,000 DWT of Ships!

The National Pollution Prevention and Response contract holder is tasked with safeguarding life at sea and protecting the marine environment from harm. The role of the contractor has, over the years, become synonymous with total casualty response, incorporating vessel salvage, pollution prevention and ongoing and effective protection of the marine environment. The Contractor must be able to handle effective emergency response – attending both to the immediate problem of the distressed vessel and the safety of its crew, as well as the threat of the vessel and its cargo to the environment.

The contractors role is crucial and whilst he has little or no authority, the resultant responsibility and risk of performance is huge. It is the Contractor, as the first point of contact with the stricken vessel, that has to assess the extent or potential threat of environmental damage and the remedies required to alleviate the situation without delay. It is also the contractor who has to advise the National Department of Transport through the South African Maritime Safety Authority of the potential risks to the environment.

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