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COMMENTARY · 21st November 2011
Merv Ritchie
On October 5, 2011, an ocean going container vessel named Rena ran aground on a reef off the coast of New Zealand. The oil spill that resulted was similar to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, just not as large. This was simply the fuel for the tanker that leaked. It was a regular cargo ship, not a tanker carrying raw bitumen. As ridiculous as it might sound, there is a channel in the keel, the very bottom of these ships, that carries the fuel between the fuel tanks. It is this which likely ruptured first as the Liberian flagged and Greece company owned ship ran aground on the jagged reefs in New Zealand.

This single accident identifies the most basic problem with the present method of Ocean Cargo vessels regardless of the product shipped; the tankers themselves. Just as the quality of the steel in the cars and trucks we buy and drive today has been substantially reduced, so has it for the Cargo Vessels. The Exxon Valdez leaked so quickly due to the poor quality of the steel and welds. And make no mistake the initial damage, where it began leaking, was at a location where the vessel was double hulled. Had the Vessel been built to the standards of the 1970's it might not have leaked so much, so quickly.

Due to the new awareness in the world of the threats to the environment it only makes sense to reconsider the way we ship products, especially oil.
See pictures of the New Zealand accident by clicking here.

The Rena is estimated to have had 2000 tonnes of diesel and bunker fuel. This compares to around half a million gallons or over 10,000 barrels. Any spill of this size would be a tragedy to any shore line or environment. To have this hold of fuel exposed by a thin layer of steel at the very bottom of the vessels is unconscionable. We must take a serious look at this as a priority issue prior to any increase in any shipping along the BC coast or indeed, anywhere on the planet.

Awareness is the first step. The second is each individuals ability to, and willingness to, respond. Pleasure vessels are fuelled up on the water and the general method of determining when the fuel hold is full is when it spills out the overflow vent, directly into the water. How in good conscience do we as individuals allow this to continue? And then we might ask, why would we expect the owners and operators of Cargo vessels to think any differently than us? If we are willing to spill a half a litre or better every time we fill up our fishing or ski boat, the same general relationship for a tanker is spilling more than 1000 gallons.

Recently governments have revamped the manner gas stations need to maintain their facilities. The tanks are no longer allowed to be single skinned and buried without protection. One might observe many above ground tanks. These are double skinned with the space between evacuated to a vacuum. A gauge is installed to demonstrate the inner and outer tank walls are intact and sealed reducing any potential of a leak. This one action proves governments are willing to take appropriate action where they are able. In the case of ocean going vessels the imposition of a new requirement would require the support of all countries involved. Yet a new standard must be employed. It must be demanded. No longer is it acceptable to foul beaches and shorelines like what has recently happened in New Zealand.

Rail cars carrying Condensate to Alberta to thin the raw bitumen for transport in pipelines already travel the CN rail line across Northern BC. These should also all be constructed as double walled vacuum protected tanks. At anytime we could see a derailment potentially spilling into the Skeena or Bulkley River systems. A double skin should be considered a requirement. These rail cars could carry 30,000 gallons or approximately 125 tonnes. If they were designed to be loaded like the present Costco cargo containers, unhooked from the rail bed and stackable, we could discover a new way to protect the environment.

This would require the world shipping community to employ a new standard. If a coordinated plan was put into action the fuel holds of all vessels could be modified to accept the fitting and placement of these new rail car modules. The design of locations for ten to twenty of these rail car modules could be fabricated with automatic valves to immediately close during an emergency situation such as the Rena running aground. A full break up at sea would result in very little fuel spillage and the recovery of the sealed fuel tanks would be a much simpler operation.

And all petroleum products should be shipped in this manner. The costs of this method would be much greater but the benefits far out weigh the price. In the 1980's and 1990's the price of oil was between $15 and $20 per barrel. Only in the past ten years has it approached and exceeded $100. The markets and the world has been able to live with this fluctuation. There is no reason to imagine the world could not live with another minor price adjustment to accommodate the increased cost of shipping by containers.

If all of the petroleum products were shipped in this manner a vessel running aground or breaking up in high seas would see floating sealed tanks not fouled beaches and marine life dying. Fuelling up a vessel would be the placement of these same tanks into their respective positions. Tank farms on the shorelines of sensitive habitat would no longer be a worry (Burnaby BC had a leak at their tank farm in 2009 releasing 200,000 litres before it was noticed).

The BC and Canadian governments could become leaders in the world. The desire to market the Alberta Tar sands product with the increasing and firm resistance from First Nations, Environmental groups and the general public at large, a new plan might appease a majority of the opposition.

Today the construction of the tankers and the cargo vessels are an abysmal failure of quality. The design of all new tankers does not even meet a reasonable standard of safety. This fact alone should have the public and the governments demanding the implementation of this new standard; double skinned vacuum sealed containers from the place of origin through to the destination facility.

There is a website devoted strictly to the awareness of tanker construction. The site is named appropriately, The Center for Tankship Excellence. Visit the site by clicking here. It is maintained by the former CEO of Majestic Shipping (in the 1980s was the largest independent American VLCC - Very Large Cargo Carrier) and former director and Program Manager for Hellespont, the owners of the largest ships built in the world in the last twenty years. From 1984 to 1990, Dr. Devanney was President and CEO of Majestic Shipping Corp, which carried over 2% of all the oil imported into the United States in 1988 and 1989. Between 1990 and 2005, Devanney was a Director of Hellespont Shipping Corp, owner of as many as 14 VLCC's. In 1999, under his direction as Program Manager, Hellespont instituted the largest large tanker new building program in the world at the time, four 305,000 ton VLCC's at Samsung Heaving Industries, and four 442,000 ton ULCC's (Ultra Large Cargo Carrier) at Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. These were the only ships over 320,000 tons built in the last 20 years and were delivered in 2001/2002. Dr. Devanney was responsible for all facets of this program: specs, financing, yard negotiations, supervision, and all major technical and commercial decisions.

This man knows what he is talking about better than almost anyone and he details the travesty of the current design standards.

With this evidence it would not just be irresponsible to consider allowing tankers to sail in the BC coastal waters it would be a criminal breech of fiduciary duty by all levels of government. No longer should we witness another spoiled region on the planet simply due to the lack of will or authority to make a wise decision.

Residents in New Zealand are living the nightmare the fishermen experienced over 20 years ago in Alaska. There is simply no reason for this to repeat itself over and over again. Currently the Tankers are of such poor quality the chances of a disaster from every cargo vessel, especially the newest ones, are far greater than they were in the 70's. We must change the way we do this, it is imperative.
Comment by Apocalypse Now on 21st November 2011
The Pro pipe liners wont admit anything like this could happen here. Eyes wide shut the lot of them.