The Menace of Tar Balls – Are Ships to Blame?

Tuesday / July 21, 2015

By Capt. K.P. Jayakumar

Tar balls have been washing up on our beaches atGoa.  This has rightfully brought about adebate on the cause of such occurrences.

The general perception continues to be that oil tankers are solelyresponsible for the occurrence as they still believe that ships pump out tankwash into the sea leading to the formation of tar balls on our beaches.

The perception of oil tankers being solely responsiblefor such occurrence has been difficult to change as the shipping industry hasnot really tried to correct this perception.

There is no dispute that in the early years oftransportation of oil by sea, it was common practice for ships to pump out oiland oily mixture into the sea. However, the shipping industry realised thedangers of environmental degradation by this practice and took early steps tocorrect it.

While the rest of the world woke up to the need toprotect the environment and held the first International Conference on theHuman Environment at Stockholm only in 1972, the Shipping industry had in themeantime already adopted the OILPOL Convention in 1954 to address pollutioncaused from routine tanker operations and the discharge of oily wastes frommachinery space of ships.  The OILPOL Convention was even amended three times tomake it more effective before theStockholm Convention was adopted in 1972.

In 1973, the shipping industry adopted the MARPOL Convention to not only deal withpollution by oil, but also to address pollutioncaused by chemicals, harmful substances in package form, sewage and garbage byhaving separate Annexes to deal with each of them.

The Shipping industry did not rest on its laurels afterthe adoption of the MARPOL Convention. Not only was the MARPOL Convention amended regularly to make it morestringent and effective, another Annex was added to the Convention to address airpollution from ships. In addition, shipping industry also addressed otheraspects of environmental degradation by adopting International Conventions todeal with the use of harmful paints on the outer hull of ships as well as thoserelated to the transfer of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens in ballastwater of ships.

India is a signatory to the MARPOL Convention andParliament has implemented the provisions of the Convention into Indian law through the Merchant Shipping Act and its Rules.  The Merchant Shipping Act is a post-independence enactment applicable to any vessel which is registered inIndia.  Despite the same, many vessels registeredin India have escaped compliance with MARPOL requirements by taking shelter of otherpre-independence legislations and by interpreting that the provisions of theMerchantShipping Act were not applicable to them.

International shipping is currently amongst the mostheavily regulated industry of the world as sea-going ships on internationaltrade are subjected to multiple inspection regimes by maritime authorities of differentcountries that the ship proceeds to. Penalties for violation of MARPOL provisions are stringent and in manyjurisdictions could even lead to jail terms.

Any wilful discharge of oil/oily-water anywhere in the world contrary tothe provisions of the MARPOL Convention could make the seafarer and theshipping company liable for the act irrespective of the region that thedischarge took place.  The multipleinspections also ensure that it would be very difficult for a ship to consistentlyevade detection of the unlawful discharge.

Despite the provisions of the MARPOL Conventions,discrete and clandestine discharge of oily-water continuing to take place fromships cannot be totally ruled out.  Thepossibility of coastal ships resorting to such practices more frequently thanships engaged on international voyages also cannot be totally ruled out as coastalvessels are not subject to multiple international inspections.

However, if shipswere the sole cause for suchoccurrences, it should normally occur throughout the year and not be limited tothe period just before the onset of monsoon, or immediately after thewithdrawal of monsoon.  In addition, suchviolations could be easy to detect as discharge of oil/oily-water results in oil-sheenon the surface of the sea that can be detected during aerial surveillance ofthe sea.  Also, when such oily-water doeswash ashore, it would generally not be in the form of tar balls, as tar ballsare normally formed only after oil has undergone weathering process by exposureto wind and waves over substantial periods of time.

If ships are not the cause of the occurrence of tarballs on our coasts, what could be the cause for such occurrences?  Tar balls havewashed up on coasts all overthe world including coasts of United States, Australia and the Atlanticcoasts.  The analysis of such tar balls hasgenerally found it to be due to natural causes.

The tar balls deposits that occurred in the Margaret River beach in WesternAustralia, when analysed, suggested that the incident was the result of naturalseepage of oil as far away as South East Asia.

Similarly, when earlier tar ball deposits on our beaches were analysed byscientists from NIO, they also found the source of the tar balls to be possiblyfrom the South East Asian region (SEACO).

As the possibility of ships pumping out SEACO oil inthe Arabian Sea is remote, the only logical explanation appears to be that of thenatural seepage of oil from the South East Asian region getting carried by thecurrents of the region and washing up on the coast as tar balls after the weatheringprocess.  Whether the coast is an Indian Coast,Australian Coast or any other coast would depend upon the direction of flow of thecurrents at that particular period.

This hypothesis needs to be further analysed till a firmconclusion can be drawn.  The analysis needsto factor the source of origin of the tar balls with the ocean currents of the regionalong with special emphasis during the reversal of currents on our coasts.

We need to continue to be vigilant to ensure that ourwaters remain unpolluted.  Special emphasismay be needed to verify compliance of all vessels on our coast.  Also, all vesselsoperating in Indian waters thatare currently not complying with the requirements of the MARPOL Convention needsto also be brought within its purview without any exception and all violations shouldbe dealt with strictly.

(Views are personal)

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