2008 – pouring trouble on oiled waters

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Whatever lays on the other side of the misty horizon of New Year’s Eve one thing is fairly certain: more seafarers will be arrested, fined and jailed following maritime accidents. On particular, punishments for non-compliance with MARPOL regulations will continue to increase to previously unheard of levels, beyond the $13.3 million average per year for the past decade.

In its parting shot for 2007, the Standard Club‘s bulletin for December warns: “…the level of fines will continue to increase until it is felt that the shipping industry is getting its house in order”. We’ll see P&I clubs cracking the whip over their members. Standard warns that those of its members who find themselves facing a MARPOL violation fine will have to prove that they did everything reasonably necessary to avoid non-compliance – with the burden of proof being on the shipowner. After the high level of claims over the past 18 months. P&I club are likely to become more forceful, for shipowners it’ll be a matter of getting into the act or getting out of the club.
 The US is dropping the hammer on violators in a big way and more seafarers will face the agression of the US Coast Guard but, as Standard says: “…these prosecutions and breathtaking fines would not be possible unless engineers persisted in bypassing the oily water separator (OWS), dumping sludge overboard and falsifying the oil record book. Most prosecutions are based upon physical evidence in the form of pipes and hoses, confessions or testimony of engineers or circumstantial evidence gleaned from oil record books. In some cases, so called ‘whistleblowers’, who stand to gain financially from a successful prosecution, alert the authorities to what is going on onboard….Whatever the source of evidence, it is obvious that these illegal practices continue to exist and are fairly widespread in the shipping industry…” And it isn’t just marginal operators who are guilty of trying to play fast and loose with MARPOL, it’s some household names, too.

Practices range from by-passing oily water separators and their alarms to simply throwing oily sludge from filters and purifier over the side. In the case of prosecution by US authorities, the discharge does not have to be inside its jurisdiction. Crew and shipowners find themselves faced with falsifying records, such as the oil record book, concealing equipment used to bypass the oily water separator or the destruction of documents such as engine room logs whioch amount to obstruction of justice.

So, yes, they are out to get you.

Money, of course, is a key. Standard highlights: “….failing to purchase and install the best available technology, limiting the discharge of oil waste in port, cutting corners on maintenance, generally incentivising chief engineers to keep within budget regardless of any operational problems and failing to ensure adequate experienced manning of the engine room…problems can also arise as a result of poor systems of shoreside management control over the waste management process, due to inadequate training and auditing to ensure compliance. In other cases, there are cultural aspects resulting
in a rigid hierarchy in the engine room, which actively discourages junior engineers from questioning any improper practices and, if necessary, directing such concerns to shoreside management… There are also cases that have resulted from the deliberate acts of individual engineers, either as a result of laziness or incompetence. These so-called ‘bad apples’ are often the stated reason given by the ship operator for the practices onboard, although this should not always be taken at face value. There may be reasons for engineers acting improperly if they feel they have not received sufficient training or support, in the form of proper equipment and spares, in order to deal with the normal and sometimes abnormal operational problems in the engine room.”

In brief, then, MARPOL violations result from company cultures in which certain crewmen are encouraged to short-circuit waste management systems, given inadequate systems and training in the first place, where monitoring compliance is poor and where shipboard culture discourages the questioning of improper practices and discourages seafarers who are aware of them from doing anything about it.

Those seafarers, of course, will be the ones facing the inside of a prison cell.

Violating MARPOL isn’t good business practice. It’s dumb. Over the next year it won’t just be arrest happy USCG personnel and income-happy political administrations but other countries, too, which will be impressing upon shipowners and crew just how dumb dumping oil is.

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