Salvors Warn that STS Restrictions Could Lead to Another Prestige

Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Salvage operations involving the ship-to-ship (STS) transfer of cargo and bunkers from tankers and other vessels should be exempt from new controls proposed by Spain and Mexico and now under consideration by the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). The International Salvage Union (ISU) believes that the proposed new rules could hamper salvors’ efforts to prevent a future Prestige-type spill catastrophe. At its recent meeting, ending July 22, the MEPC agreed to consider MARPOL amendments concerning oil transfer operations at sea. This process has been given “high priority” status and has a target date for completion by 2007. ISU President Hans van Rooij says: “The proposals focus on routine STS operations and would give Coastal States greater control over operations performed beyond the territorial sea when there is a potential for pollution. Our concern, however, is that new measures giving Coastal States such powers might be used to justify the refusal of legitimate requests for shelter for ship casualties and a failure to approve the subsequent removal of cargo and bunkers which could cause pollution. “It is noteworthy that Spain is a co-sponsor of this proposal. This attempt to gain more control over shipping in international waters misses the point. Spain and Mexico are arguing the case for new powers to restrict or ban STS operations in Special or Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas. Yet these are the very areas most at risk. The freedom of the salvor to perform an STS on a laden tanker at a sheltered location is essential for the protection of such vulnerable areas.

“If Coastal States with a reputation for knee-jerk rejection of ship casualties are handed such powers, I have no doubt that they will use them to deny refuge for casualties. The ISU urges the IMO to keep the Prestige disaster firmly in mind. The acceptance of the proposal from Spain and Mexico could undermine the IMO’s recently adopted International Guidelines on Places of Refuge.” The ISU’s concerns include the possible use of the proposed measures to restrict the salvor’s ability to remove bunkers from ship casualties. The majority of salvage operations now commence with the removal of the pollution threat by transferring bunkers. Salvors are only too well aware that they have no responder immunity under the IMO’s Bunker Spills Convention. They are at risk of prosecution if pollution occurs despite the best endeavours of the salvage team.

Hans van Rooij adds: “Applying the proposals to bunker transfers would create very serious problems for salvors. It is possible that the imposition of restrictions or inappropriate conditions could reduce the salvor’s chance of successfully avoiding pollution. The main point, of course, is that salvors must retain their freedom of action if they are to prevent major spills and catastrophic environmental damage.”

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