NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.

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Pirates and Oil Pollution: Hijacking the High Seas in the 21st Century

IMO exhibit poster: 2,000 Somali pirates are hijacking the world's economy.

Piracy and maritime trade: Not just a 17th century problem anymore. Credit: Doug Helton/NOAA.

What do pirates, greenhouse gases, ballast water, radioactive wastes, and oil pollution all have in common?

They are all issues the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is dealing with. While in London for an IMO meeting, I am working on oil pollution issues, but during breaks in meetings I had a chance to walk around and look at some of the other work going on here. Piracy, for example, is a big concern, and the IMO keeps a database on piracy events worldwide.

USS Philippine Sea sailors approach a life boat to rescue crew members from the MT Brilliante Virtuoso near Yemen.

Sailors assigned to the USS Philippine Sea approach a life boat to rescue crew members from the Liberian-flagged motor vessel MT Brilliante Virtuoso. The crew of Brilliante Virtuoso abandoned ship near Yemen due to a fire aboard the vessel. Credit: Raynald Lenieux/U.S. Navy.

Pirate attacks have a potential for oil spills and other environmental damage in addition to obvious concerns about the safety of ship crews and loss of property. On July 6, there was a pirate attack on an oil tanker off of Yemen that resulted in the tanker catching fire. Fortunately the early reports seem to indicate that the fire was extinguished without the loss of the oil cargo, and the U.S. Navy ship USS Phillipine Sea safely recovered all crew members.

Oil pollution issues being discussed this week at the IMO meeting include dealing with oil that has sunk beneath the ocean surface, burning surface oil to remove it during spills, potentially polluting shipwrecks, and responding to oil spills in ice and snow conditions.

Countries also have an opportunity to present case histories on recent response efforts. We had a great presentation the other day about the collision and sinking of the container ship Chitra off Mumbai, India, last August. That involved a large oil spill, hundreds of lost containers, dozens of leaking chemical tanks, and a huge salvage operation.

Hopefully I’ll never have to deal with such a complicated case, but I’m glad that the IMO provides a forum for discussion and sharing of lessons learned so that we can have a head start if such an incident happened in U.S waters.


When Coral Reefs Lose a Boxing Match

This past Sunday, the one to really get knocked out during Filipino Manny Pacquiao and American Shane Mosley’s boxing match was an area of coral reef in the southern Philippines. There, international media report that a Panamanian-registered cargo ship bearing 65,000 tons of coal from Australia to India ran aground in the Sarangani Bay, crushing a large section of reef. According to Philippine news sources, local officials have started rumors that the M/V Double Prosperity’s mostly Filipino crew was deviating from course into shallow waters to get better satellite signal and TV reception of that day’s boxing match between Pacquiao and Mosley.

“I have a feeling they sailed close to the shore to watch the fight,” Sarangani Governor Miguel Dominguez speculated to the media a few days after the incident.

While the damaged corals, located in a marine sanctuary, were supposed to be protected, perhaps they should have learned to bob and weave after witnessing another coral reef’s bad luck.

MV Shen Neng grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010

M/V Shen Neng 1 grounded and spilling fuel oil on the Great Barrier Reef in April 2010. The milky plume in the water is pulverized coral. Photo courtesy of Maritime Safety Queensland.

Last April, the Great Barrier Reef received an even worse black eye when another ship carrying Australian coal, the Chinese M/V Shen Neng 1, grounded itself on the famous reef, spilling between three and four tons of heavy fuel oil and oiling nearly two-thirds of a mile of Queensland shoreline. The main cause of the Shen Neng 1’s grounding wasn’t a crew of boxing fans, but rather, an overly sleepy pilot, which is reported to be a key safety risk at sea.

When something like this happens in U.S. waters, Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) staff are called in to figure out how coral reefs have been damaged and to make science-based recommendations for restoring that habitat. For both of the cases mentioned here, the real threat to the environment wasn’t from potentially spilling the ships’ fuel; it was from smashing the sensitive coral reefs below the surface.

As the ships plow into the reefs, they create what is known as a “grounding scar,” that in the case of the Shen Neng 1, was several miles long and crushed hundreds of acres of corals.  The milky white sediment plume you can see around the vessel in the above photo is pulverized coral. In addition to corals being directly toppled and crushed, the resulting rubble can continue to scour and smother the adjacent undamaged corals, delivering a double blow to the ecosystem.

For example, in the center of the below photo, you can see a debris pile composed of crushed coral. The left side of the photo shows undamaged coral reef, and the barren area to the right reveals the improvised highway the vessel scraped across the reef.  These unstable and barren areas may take generations to recover as baby corals lack a stable place to attach to and form a new reef.

Coral reef damaged by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006

Coral reef damaged (right) by the Margara oil tanker grounding in Puerto Rico in April 2006. Credit: NOAA

Once a ship is stranded, the damage to corals is not over. Other concerns include scraping toxic paint from the ship’s bottom, discharging ballast water and cargo to lighten the ship, and additional reef-crushing as the swells and wind move the ship and as salvage vessels work to free the stricken vessel. In some cases, even the iron from the ship can harm the reef.

The bottom line is that sometimes an oil spill is only one of many environmental problems that can result from a shipping accident. Some things can be done to restore the reef, but recovery will still be slow. OR&R works to minimize those environmental impacts and develop restoration alternatives.  If you’re interested in how OR&R and NOAA address coral injuries, take a closer look at these two cases in Maitland, Fla., and Cape Flattery, Hawaii.  And if you’re a boxing champ, we know a couple coral reefs that could use some lessons in defense.

Doug Helton contributed to this post.