The news was grim as could be; a giant Iranian tanker carrying nearly a million barrels of oil has burst into flames seconds after colliding with a freighter and over 30 sailors are missing. The fire is so huge that the South Korean customer predicts it would take a good several weeks before it finally burns out. The proportions are unheard of… or are they?
Flashback to 28 February 2004; the crew on board the chemical tanker Bow Mariner are cleaning the residual Methyl Tert Butyl Ether (MTBE) from cargo tank number eight starboard when the ship catches fire and blows up into thin air so fast that only six of the 27 crewmembers aboard the tanker get the chance to abandon the ship unharmed.
The ship and its cargo of 11,570 tons of industrial ethanol ultimately sank some 50 miles off the US state of Virginia while on voyage from Linden in the port of New York and New Jersey to Texas City near Houston in Texas.
Three years earlier, on the night of March 28, 2001, cargo vessel Tern collided with the oil tanker Baltic Carrier, at the boundary between the German and Danish territorial waters around 16 nautical miles southeast of the Danish islands of Falster and Møn.
In fact, catastrophic incidents involving takers and large vessels have been so frequent in the past years that they no longer surprise maritime experts.
Despite huge leaps forward in navigation technology, the inevitability of human error coupled with the limited maneuverability of today’s cargo vessels mean that these floating monstrosities will always be prone to collisions or other types of incidents.
Even military vessels equipped with anti-collision radars far more advanced than their commercial peers are not immune to this deadly combination.
Only in 2017, the US Navy lost a significant number of its warships and sailors in a series of collisions across the globe, leading to a wave of embarrassing dismissals at the highest ranks.
Officials say an explosion has rocked the stricken oil tanker, forcing the suspension of firefighting and rescue efforts.
While the loss of human life is never acceptable and there are major works underway to reduce the chances of such incidents to a minimum, what keeps the scientists awake at night is the environmental consequences that will threaten large groups of people over the long run.
The Panamanian-flagged Sanchi oil tanker that is currently burning off the coast of southeast China was carrying some 150,000 tons of a highly combustible substance called condensate to South Korea for National Iranian Oil Company subsidiary Bright Shipping Limited.
Sanchi’s oil slick is expected to be smaller than that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 260,000 barrels of heavy crude oil near Alaska.
The condensate onboard Sanchi, a type of liquid gas extracted from crude oil, is lighter and would burn off much easier than the crude heavy oil.
It is more difficult to clean the oil spill once the ship sinks and releases its cargo under the water.
This was more or less the case in 1972, when the Sea Star, a South Korean supertanker, spilled some 115,000 tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Oman after colliding with the Brazilian tanker Horta Barbosa.
Energy giant BP has been ordered to pay for the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010.
In the case of Exxon Valdez, which went on to become the second worst spill in US history, nearly 37,000 tons of oil were spilled into the Prince William Sound, in the Gulf of Mexico after the oil tanker grounded in the shallow waters.
At its peak, it took 10,000 workers to clean up an area of over 1,800 kilometers with varying degrees of contamination. The operation cost nearly $2 billion in its first year.
Babatunde Anifowose, a lecturer at the University of Coventry, told CNN that a similar fate, albeit on a smaller scale, was awaiting the Sanchi should it sink.
If there are no explosions, however, it is possible that much of the condensate spilled into the sea would evaporate, he said.
China’s Transport Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that it expected much of the condensate to evaporate upon hitting the water, leaving “very little residue on the water’s surface” in the first five hours.
Maritime incidents of this caliber act as a reminder that transiting oil cargo through marine channels is precarious and needs a combination of advanced gear and the right crew.
However, it is not all bad news for the shipping industry as data from insurance firm Allianz suggests that total losses of large ships recorded in 2016 saw a 16-percent decrease to 85 cases, with only one of them lost to collision.