ISU Warns that Environmental Salvage is Undervalued

Monday, March 31, 2003
Salvage services with environmental objectives are undervalued, according to the International Salvage Union. ISU President Joop Timmermans told some 200 delegates at the March 2003 Fourth International Marine Salvage Conference: “In the ISU’s view, environmental defense – as a function of salvage – is undervalued. There is a strong argument to be advanced that reward should reflect the true value, in terms of the public interest.” The ISU–sponsored conference was held at the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Joop Timmermans said the salvor’s reward for his traditional role, property recovery, was related to the value of that property. As for any additional value placed on environmental – or public interest – salvage services, the Special Compensation provided under Article 14 of the Salvage Convention is confined, essentially, to the reimbursement of expenses. This has been largely superseded by SCOPIC remuneration, based on pre-agreed rates. While SCOPIC rates are profitable, the additional reward does not reflect the full value placed on environmental services by society.

The ISU President said: “We now have a situation where environmental (or public interest) services take precedence, yet the reward for such services is still based on the value of property salved. In short, despite new and important services, the maximum reward is the same.” He referred to this as a “disparity” and added: “The annual financial commitments necessary to deal with this disparity are as nothing compared to the costs of a single devastating spill.” The International Marine Salvage Conference was opened by IMO Secretary - General William O’Neil, who touched on issues surrounding the loss of the tanker Prestige. He said the precise cause of the damage which led to the sinking may never be known. He then added: “… we do know, however, that the ship had sufficient structural strength, even after the initial problem had developed, to survive six days of severe punishment from the weather as she was towed out into the Atlantic. “There has been a great deal of informed speculation suggesting that, had she been given access to sheltered waters, it may have been possible to have transferred the cargo and the effects of pollution could have been controlled and minimized.” While it was obvious that such casualties were unwelcome: “… there are clear indications that a refusal can result in compounding the problem, which ultimately endangers life, the ship and the environment.”

The IMO Secretary – General also noted that even though the salvage team is made up of professionals who understand the risks, “they are still potentially in a position of grave danger and this should never be overlooked in any deliberations about what steps should be taken to deal with the situation.” An overview of EU maritime safety policy and the European Commission’s response to the Prestige spill was given by Gilles Bergot, an Administrator in the Directorate–General for Energy and Transport’s Maritime Safety Unit. He acknowledged that the new and tighter deadline of July 1, 2003, for establishing plans for accommodating ships in distress was “very short.” He identified several key issues related to places of refuge. He acknowledged the reluctance of some EU Member States to identify places of refuge, but added that the main issue was not identification but publication of identified locations. There is a “lot of resistance” to publication. One outcome of the Prestige was the acceleration of the program to establish the new European Maritime Safety Agency. Gordon Amos, Titan Maritime (UK)’s Managing Director, told the conference: “For the salvage industry and the ISU, the challenge is how best to deliver a viable service that can provide a partnership between the commercial interest, the public interest and state governments.” He envisaged an important role for the European Maritime Safety Agency in terms of relationship building. New US salvage regulations were published last year. Richard Buckingham, Assistant Supervisor of Salvage (Admiralty), told the conference a final rule had been expected this Spring but was now more likely at the end of the year or even later. These rules will apply only to oil-carrying vessels, as they are being issued under OPA 90’s vessel response plan requirements. American salvors and various environmental groups support extension of the rules to other ship types. Richard Buckingham said: “Their position has merit, in the light of recent studies revealing the high percentage of pollution caused by non-tank vessels.” However, such an extension would require an amendment to OPA 90 or another statutory basis for the rules and this is not an immediate prospect. Richard Buckingham noted that, unlike the U.K., France and some other countries, the US has no government–funded, pre-positioned emergency towing vessels (ETVs) available for salvage response. He said the US “has been lucky so far in its reliance on a ‘tug of opportunity’ system.” He added: “Many will argue that we cannot afford an ETV system. But when you take into account the potentially devastating environmental, as well as collateral (economic) impacts of a major grounding/sinking/spill, you begin to wonder if we can afford not to have an ETV system.” He also saw merit in the UK SOSREP Command and Control System, commenting that the US should consider “a similar, but not necessarily identical, system.” In a paper submitted to the conference and read in his absence, Arnold Witte, President of Donjon Marine Co. Inc. and a past President of the ISU, called for protection for the salvor from the imposition of criminal liability. He said that “the only answer is responder immunity.” He added: “One who responds to a casualty to solve a problem and has no hand in creating it, should not be subject to the spectre of criminal liability, no matter how remote.”

Places of refuge Captain Hans–Heinrich Callsen–Bracker, Chairman of the IMO’s Working Group on Places of Refuge, gave delegates an overview of the work under way to prepare new international guidelines on this controversial issue. He emphasized that the Working Group’s main purpose was to develop a practical tool for the use of decision-makers. At the same time, he observed: “Granting access to a place of refuge could involve a political decision, which can only be taken on a case-by-case basis with consideration of the balance between the advantage for the affected ship and the environment resulting from bringing the ship into a place of refuge and the risk to the environment resulting from that ship being near the coast.” He added that the intention was to achieve adoption of the guidelines at the IMO Assembly later this year. Robin Middleton, the UK Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP), told the conference that he had been involved in over 270 incidents and a number had involved entry into places of safety. He made the point that the SOSREP system provides for no Ministerial involvement whilst operations are in progress. He noted: “This is the one aspect of our system that is unique at this time.” In November 2000, the container vessel Bunga Teratai Satu grounded on Sudbury Reef, off Cairns – on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The vessel had just over 1,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board. David Baird, of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, described the response to this casualty in a highly sensitive environment. The vessel was refloated without loss of fuel or cargo. He outlined the subsequent review of ship safety and pollution prevention measures in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. He said: “Whether examination of (these) issues will eventually lead Australia towards the development of the so-called ‘retained salvage’ concept remains to be seen. A key factor against Australia pursuing this option is a significantly lower level of shipping traffic than South Africa or those European countries that have implemented such a scheme.” He added that the Bunga Teratai Satu incident demonstrated that the existing cooperative arrangements between salvors and government in Australia “are fundamentally sound and do not require major revision.” Dirk Fry, Managing Director of Columbia Shipmanagement, identified some lessons from the salvage response to the grounded vessel Nino. This Columbia-managed vessel, with a gasoline and gasoil cargo, went aground on South Africa’s Wild Coast in July of last year. This ship was the first to be refloated successfully from this stretch of the Wild Coast. He said: “In order to demonstrate competence in a casualty situation, it is vital to take the time to explain – to the authorities, the media and other third parties – the plan of action to salve ship and cargo and protect the environment.” Dirk Fry said that external communications “benefit greatly from an integrated approach.” He added: “It would be quite wrong to suggest that every case can be progressed in complete harmony, on every significant issue. Equally, it is correct to state that many cases can be handled in a constructive, integrated manner. The Nino salvage may provide a model for cooperative, integrated working.” David Main, SMIT Salvage’s General Manager, Africa, gave the salvor’s view of the Nino operation. He argued that “good communication is the key to integrated working.” He added: “The salvor is often positioned as the primary information source during a salvage operation. This means he has a responsibility to establish open communication with the media, so as to avoid speculation and damage to the reputations of all stakeholders.”

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