With salvage ops underway, Dutch govt urged to step in for ‘safe and environmentally sound’ FSO recycling
With inspections and oil transfer preparations almost out of the way, salvage operations to transfer the oil from a rapidly decaying floating storage offshore (FSO) unit moored off the Red Sea coast of Yemen to a safe vessel are expected to start soon, as part of the UN-led efforts to prevent a potential catastrophic oil spill. This raises concerns about the facility in which this tanker will be recycled with many calling on the Netherlands to take these matters into its own hands.
While the salvage operations to secure the 376-metre-long FSO Safer were delayed multiple times in the past due to lack of funding, the operations for the removal of the oil onboard this decaying oil tanker are now taking place off the coast of Yemen. The plan to address the threat posed by the FSO Safer comprises two critical tracks. This covers an emergency operation to transfer the oil from the FSO to a temporary vessel and the installation of a long-term replacement vessel or another capacity equivalent to the FSO within a target of 18 months.
This FSO is in danger of exploding and unleashing a disaster, estimated to have the potential for a massive oil spill four times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989. Therefore, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) signed an agreement in March 2023 to purchase a very large crude carrier (VLCC), the Nautica, to take on the oil from the FSO Safer by emergency ship-to-ship transfer.
The Nautica left Zhousha in China on 6 April and was expected to arrive in the Red Sea in early May to mitigate the threat posed by the ageing supertanker in an advanced state of decay, as the cost of cleanup alone would be $20 billion if this oil spill is not prevented. The FSO Safer has been moored some 4.8 nautical miles southwest of the Ras Issa peninsula on Yemen’s west coast for more than 30 years but the war between the pro-government coalition and Houthi rebels saw offloading from the vessel, as well as maintenance, grind to a halt in 2015.
Moreover, UNDP inked an agreement with Boskalis, through its subsidiary SMIT Salvage, to remove oil from the tanker and the firm’s scope of work consists of a number of phases with the initial onsite phase focusing on a thorough inspection of the vessel and its cargo and creating a safe working environment. To this end, the multipurpose support vessel Ndeavor was prepared in the Netherlands.
Boskalis reported last week that “good progress” was made by SMIT Salvage to prepare the FSO Safer for the oil transfer phase of the operation with recent work focusing on inspecting and reinstating equipment on board the FSO. This entails various winches required for the mooring operation as well as the stripping pumps to facilitate the transfer of the last remains of the cargo to the replacement oil tanker alongside the vessel.
Additionally, the underwater inspection of the hull by a team of professional divers has been executed while two tugboats, owned by Smit Lamnalco, also arrived on site. These tugboats will assist with the berthing of the replacement tanker when it arrives on site. Oil booms will be installed for contingency purposes as a precautionary measure during the ship-to-ship transfer of the oil.
The FSO Safer contains more than a million barrels of oil and is considered to be beyond repair, as it could soon break apart or explode. According to the UN, this is “enough to make it the fifth largest oil spill from a tanker in history.” After the vessel is declared clean and empty, it will be prepared for towing to a green scrapping yard under the responsibility of the UN.
As the UNDP is looking for a destination for the FSO’s recycling, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) urged the UNDP to find a solution that effectively addresses the inherent risks associated with the dismantling process and the management of the hazardous materials that will remain on board.
Currently, these NGOs are calling on the Dutch government, one of the biggest donors to the Stop Red Sea Oil Pollution operation, to follow suit and assist UNDP in identifying a suitable recycling facility by pushing for “the safe and environmentally sound” recycling of the FSO Safer.
This comes after several yards located on the beaches in India and Bangladesh and major cash buyers have shown interest in scrapping the FSO. For NGOs, this is unacceptable as they claim that these yards regularly sell end-of-life vessels for “dirty and dangerous” shipbreaking.
NGO Shipbreaking Platform explains that facilities practising the beaching method have “a documented lack of capacity” to ensure the environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, thus, they are likely to offer the highest price for the asset, leaving workers, local communities, and the environment to “pay the price of toxic exposure.”
With shipping broker Clarkson already getting interest and bids on behalf of the UNDP for the towing and scrapping of the vessel, including from the Netherlands-based Elegant Exit Company (EEC) – which specialises in the sustainable recycling of veteran ships by converting them into green steel – the NGOs have urged UNDP to comply with international waste law and opt for a final destination that can guarantee practices beyond “the weak standards” set by the International Maritime Organisation’s Hong Kong Convention.
The Netherlands is among those that have shown leadership in preventing the environmental disaster an oil spill from the FSO Safer would have caused. The Dutch involvement in the Stop Red Sea Oil Pollution operation was also acknowledged by Liesje Schreinemacher, Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, who recently announced that the country would “continue helping the UN to bring this to a good end.”
Ingvild Jenssen, Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, commented: “A good end entails ensuring that the FSO Safer is recycled at a facility that fully respects labour rights, operates from a dry-dock or features on the European List of approved ship recycling facilities.
“The Dutch government is a pioneer in environmentally friendly technologies implementing sound life-cycle practices, and Boskalis has been at the forefront as one of the first ship owners in the world to adopt an ‘off the beach’ ship recycling policy.
“This should guide the so far successful Stop Red Sea Oil Pollution operation’s final and equally crucial stage.”