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Are shipboard personnel still pumping oily water overboard directly through a so called “Magic Pipe” and/or not recording related operations diligently and accurately in the Oil Record Book?

According to a tally compiled by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Justice Department has convicted 140 shipping firms of MARPOL violations and collected $470 million in fines since enforcement began in the 1990s. The latest being a Japanese company being fined $1 million in 2018, and being placed on probation for a period of three years and ordered to implement a court-approved Environmental Compliance Plan. The chief engineer was placed on probation for one year and ordered to pay a fine of $5,500*.

What is it that drives shipboard personnel into doing something like this which has major ramifications on the marine ecosystem and can lead to major fines for the company and the personnel involved themselves?

Many or most of such cases involve the Chief Engineer being the decision maker and asking other engineers to carry out such operations, with or without the knowledge of the Captain.

MARPOL regulations do allow pumping of engine room bilges directly into the sea in case of emergencies, especially in case of flooding in the engine room which may be a threat to the vessel or its crew with a proper recording of such incidents. But rarely are such cases emergencies.

So where is the failure?

Some water and oil (along with other contaminants that we will not touch upon here) will collect in the bilge spaces of any machinery space due to various reasons and is in many cases unavoidable.

Certain arrangements are required as per regulations and provided by shipowners. If plans are to run ships on long voyages which may exceed, say, fifteen days without touching a port (in other words, ocean going vessels), the arrangements may need to be over and above the regulatory requirements, some of which are mentioned below:

  1. An approved type oily-water separator (OWS) – separates oil from water to a degree where the water can be pumped over-board (MARPOL regulations requirements to be followed) and the oil collected in a dedicated tank on board (sludge tank, dirty oil tank or some similar tank). It is this equipment that is usually bypassed by the “magic pipe”.
  2. A large tank (bilge tank) which may collect large quantities of machinery space bilges before being pumped overboard through an OWS, or the collected bilges are pumped to a shore reception facility once the vessel reaches a port. Collected sludge and dirty oil may also be part of such transfer to a shore reception facility. In some countries such reception facilities may charge money for providing this service.
  3. An approved incinerator (if provided) may alternately burn the sludge and the dirty oil instead of being collected for disposal ashore, again following MARPOL regulations.

The above operations, when performed, are required to be entered diligently and accurately into the ship’s Oil Record Book Part 1 with relevant signatures and countersigned by the captain of the ship.

Many ship engineers complain that the capacity of the bilge water tanks and OWS provided is much less than the amount of leakages that are happening on a ship. It is also seen many a times that an OWS is not maintained, even if it is mentioned as a “critical” equipment in the Maintenance System on board, and with enough spares being provided by a company.

However, if a survey is due or a PSC inspection is seen coming then the people on board usually scramble and give extra attention to this piece of very important equipment.

It would be interesting to know if such crimes are being done by “old time” chief engineers or if the younger ones are involved too. Also, if this happens only on older ships, or on the new ones also. Are the highly trained Chief Engineers and Captains instructed by the office to pump out the machinery space bilges directly, or is the decision made by the personnel on board themselves (to save a little money for the company)? Is this a systemic failure or a personal one?

It is my personal belief that for every such case that is caught, there may be many that get away.

Whatever is the case, I would urge my brethren working on board ships to follow the regulations strictly for their own good, the good of the companies that they work for, and above all for the environment that is getting harmed by such callous actions. Keep your heads high and do not bow down to any pressures in this regard.

We have done enough harm to our oceans and seas. Let’s now try and leave a better legacy for the coming generations, please!


This article was originally published on Ocean Hub.

*Maritime Executive, 11/5/18