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Sunday, 2 November 2003  
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Oil tanker "Bunker 2" 

Environmental disaster waiting to happen

by Deeapl Warnakulasuriya

The Sri Lanka Ports Authority's decision to permit a controversial single hull oil tanker to drop anchor in Sri Lanka's territorial waters, and engage in business has raised concern among environmentalists, who warn that the tanker is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

'Bunker 2', the controversial tanker sailed into Sri Lankan territorial waters in early September, and according to reliable sources, was permitted by the SLPA to unload its cargo of fuel, into smaller vessels, while being anchored several nautical miles off shore.

Concerned sources while claiming that the threat the tanker poses to marine resources in great, also point out that off shore operations is robbing the Ports of revenue in the form of tax and insurance charges.

SLPA officials, while admitting that they had given permission for them tanker to carry out its unloading while berthed outside the harbour, dismissed concerns about revenue loss and environmental disasters as 'nonsense'.

Concerned environmentalists point out that the World had begun phasing out single hull oil tankers due to safety risk and pollution, and claim that several countries had suffered the grave environmental consequences of oil leakage from single hull oil tankers.

The 37,000 DWT 'Bunker 2' (earlier known as 'Emerald Sea') owned by East West Enterprises Limited, according to sources, is enjoying the freedom of high seas, while anchored in the territorial seas. The tanker transports oil to the shore using small vessels and also engages in commercial activity, in mid sea.

In 1993, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) through an amendment to Annexture 1 of Regulation 13 G & F of MARPOL and its latest revision in 2001 introduced regulations to phase out single hull tankers (SHTs) and replace them with double hull tankers (DHTs) by 2015. However, European Union brought the deadline forward urging EU countries to phase out SHTs by 2010. A Port spokesman said that IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee will have an extra session next month to consider the adoption of proposals for an accelerated phasing out scheme for single hull oil tankers.

European Union Governments early this year agreed to ban single-hull oil tankers carrying heavy fuel, in an attempt to reduce the risk of spills. The decision came into effect from October 21. EU countries have also agreed on a total ban on single-hulled tankers that are over 23 years old with immediate effect and to ban all single-hulled tankers whatever their age by 2010.

The 162-nation International Maritime Organisation meeting held in London in July welcomed the EU suggestion and pledged to support the endeavour. The Canadian Oil Pollution Prevention Regulations were also amended in 1995 to include the MARPOL requirements for the phasing out of large single-hulled tankers.

A senior environmentalist revealed that the tanker in question had been built in 1975. "The possibilities of damage or an oil leakage at any time are 99 per cent," he said warning that if such a disaster occurred the ecological balance in the marine environment will completely disappear. It will also affect the fishing, tourism and hotel industries," he said. The environmentalist also said that normal procedure of oil tankers was to discharge the load within five to six days and leave the port premises. "But, here the vessel has been anchored for more than two months", he said.

Environmentalists also reminded that the Karachi environmentalists had to work for months to clean and restore Karachi beaches covered with a thick layer of black crude and littered with dead fish, turtles and sea snakes after the Greek oil tanker (Erika) was damaged and grounded outside Pakistan's main port, in the mid '90s.

Industrial experts stressed the difficulty of purifying heavy fuel oil using chemical detergent and also said that even a mechanical recovery system would not be of help much. A Port spokesman said that IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee will have an extra session next month to consider the adoption of proposals for an accelerated phasing out scheme for single hull oil tankers.

However, East West Enterprise Chairman Nahil Wijesuriya dismissed 'threats' to the environment or marine life from his oil tanker 'Bunker 2' and said that it will not create any problem in the sea. He also said that possibilities for a threat are far away as the cargo was not within 12 nautical miles radius of Sri Lanka. He pointed out that Bunker 2 had a Valid Trading Certificate till 2006.

"The deadline to phase out single hull tankers is December 2004 and it will continue to sail until the date," he said pointing out that 80 per cent of oil tankers which berth at the Colombo Port are single hull tankers. He also pointed out the tankers were not like Bunker 2, but bigger and carry over 50,000 or 60,000 tonnes. "So, why this big noise only for the Bunker 2?" he asked. Director, East West Clifford Arendte said that due to lack of storage facilities, they were not able to discharge the load of fuel in shorter time, and hence had opted to be in the high seas.

He also admitted that the vessel was engaged in businesses outside the 12 nautical miles and said that buyers were interested in us because they offered a cheaper rate when compared to the existing market price.

A Port spokesman said that Cabinet approval has been received to amend the Marine Pollution Prevention Act, No, 59 of 1981. He said the new measurers would prevent any environmental disasters in Sri Lankan waters, but pointed out that anyone could argue that the phasing out of the SHTs provide only partial protection since the enforcement will not affect vessels sailing 200 nautical miles away from any country's territorial waters. "We leave the gap to be filled by the IMO Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) at their meeting in December," he said.

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