Trouble in oily waters

South Africa’s ability to fight coastal oil spills has been compromised by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s failure to renew a marine pollution-fighting contract before its expiry.

According to maritime industry sources, a long-standing contract between Marine and Coastal Management, responsible for all marine and coastal affairs on behalf of the department, and Smit Marine, which has traditionally operated the pollution-abatement tugs Kuswag I and Kuswag IV, lapsed during the current tender process.

It could not be established this week why the contract — apparently due to have been awarded late last year — had not been finalised. Smit Marine declined to comment.

The upshot is that no private pollution-abatement vessels are currently under contract to the department, which informed observers say leaves the coastline vulnerable. With winter and its associated rough seas looming off South Africa’s coastline, an industry insider said the risks of a damaging spill were high. “We’ve had oil-spill ship wrecks every winter. If it happens now, there’s nothing we can do,” the source said.

In June last year Kuswag I was on hand to prevent oil spillage from the log carrier Kiperousa, grounded at the Mtana Estuary on the Eastern Cape coast. The pollution abatement tugs had also prevented oil spills when the cargo ship BBC China ran aground near Durban in October 2004.

Department spokesperson Carol Moses confirmed that “the assessment of those who have tendered is … not concluded”. However, Moses insisted that South Africa was not unprotected from oil spills, as four environmental-protection vessels, Lilian Ngoyi, Sarah Baartman, Ruth First and Victoria Mxenge, had been delivered to the authorities between November 2004 and September 2005.

“All vessels are sufficiently equipped to conduct oil-spill counter measures. It is not necessary to contract a private company,” Moses said. “We are utterly confident that, should any spill happen, the department will be able to deal with it.”

However, the four vessels cited as being able to respond to oil spillage and pollution are mostly associated in official documents and speeches with fishing patrols and anti-poaching action.

Each has space for between three and seven fishing inspectors. In two months last year, officials aboard the Lilian Ngoyi issued fines totalling R30 000 and seized three poaching vessels near Hawston on the Cape south coast. As the only offshore vessel, the Sarah Baartman will also patrol the polar region Marion and Prince Edward islands. In July last year, she participated in joint fisheries patrols with South Africa’s neighbours.

However, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) also maintained there was sufficient capacity available to bridge the gap. “If necessary, Samsa has the authority to activate the two Kuswag [pollution abatement] vessels even if there is no contract,” said Captain Saleem Modak, Samsa operations general manager. “We will not allow a situation to develop where there is no capacity [to fight an oil spill].”

The danger of oil spills was also brought home dramatically by the June 2000 spill from the sunken iron-ore carrier, MV Treasure, which affected about 10 000 African jackass penguins, a vulnerable species because of its declining breeding numbers. Six years earlier the oil spill from the sunken Apollo Sea, a Chinese bulk carrier, resulted in around 7 500 soiled penguins being retrieved, and beaches as far as Clifton were heavily polluted.

Meanwhile, the department is under pressure on another tender — to replace the ageing polar supply and research vessel SA Agulhas. If the department does not submit its preferred choice to the Treasury during April, it may not receive the required funds in the next Budget cycle.

R107-million has been set aside over the next three years to facilitate the tender, not the acquisition of the vessel.

Ironically, news of the expiry of the pollution abatement contract coincides with a significant South African breakthrough at the International Maritime Organisation in terms of global protection of its coastline. Last week, the organisation’s Marine Environment Protection Committee approved a 1 500km-long, 35- to 135-nautical miles-wide exclusion zone area where vessels will be prohibited from washing out their bilges or dumping waste.

The proposal was a joint effort by the transport department, Samsa and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, triggered by the MV Treasure sinking.

The sea area protection, effective from February 2008, will apply to the 1 400 vessels that pass each month along the Cape of Good Hope, one of the busiest international shipping routes.

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Marianne Merten
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