The SELI 1 Joint Response Committee which was convened on the first day in order to co-ordinate and manage the official response to the grounding of the SELI 1 has not met since 23 September, when the immediate threat of large scale oil pollution had passed and when it was obvious that any further action clearly exceeded the mandate of any of the persons comprising the committee.
There is widespread speculation by local and affected residents regarding the future of the wreck; however the authorities who are directly involved, namely; SAMSA, the Department of Transport, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Transnet Ports Authority and the City of Cape Town, have not yet issued any official communiqués on the future of the SELI 1. This communication is therefore issued in my personal capacity as the SAMSA regional manager and does not reflect the official position of any of the parties mentioned above.
The Panamanian registered, Turkish owned bulk carrier ran aground at Table View Beach on Monday 7 September. She was carrying 660 tonnes of fuel and a cargo of 30,000 tonnes of coal.
Notwithstanding the debate over who will be footing the bill, SMIT was instructed by SAMSA to remove all the fuel and oils as well any obvious contaminants such as paint. SMIT remains aboard in a caretaking capacity, also recovering small amounts of oil which continue to rise slowly to the surface in the various tanks and other spaces.
SAMSA has received confirmation from both the owner as well as the insurance brokers which confirms that the insurance company concerned, namely the ‘Russian P&I Pool’ has withdrawn the cover for pollution and wreck removal, claiming that the owner has defaulted on an express condition of the policy. The owner in turn asserts that as he is no longer covered for these eventualities, he cannot assist financially.
What this means is the liability to the ‘state’ for the mitigation and damage control services provided to date are estimated to be in the region of US $ 900,000.
The Joint Response Committee gave both the owner and insurer of the coal every opportunity to retrieve their cargo, but they have declined to do so, presumably on the basis that the cost of retrieving the coal from the vessel and handling it onwards was not worth it financially.
Therefore, the wreck, consisting of both ship and cargo, has effectively been abandoned.
The ship itself is not salvageable as it has suffered extensive damage to the hull and has a flooded engine room. In addition, all but two of the cargo holds are flooded with seawater. In fact any attempt at refloating the vessel can only be attempted after the cargo of coal has been removed in order to lighten the vessel and restore buoyancy and even then such an attempt would only be considered if the intention was to sink the vessel in deep water.
The coal has value and there would be buyers for it, but it would be very expensive to remove from the SELI 1 and handling wet coal alongside the quay in Cape Town would be a messy affair which is a concern for the Ports Authority, aside from any customs and tax considerations of re-importing the coal which was loaded in Durban.
The Authorities represented on the SELI 1 Joint Response Committee are in agreement that both the wreck and its cargo of coal must be removed from Table View beach; however, where the funds to do so would come from is not clear as there is no precedent in our recent history.
As a consequence of South Africa’s geographic position astride major international shipping lanes combined with notoriously rough sea conditions our coastline is littered with scores, if not hundreds of wrecks and in only a few noteworthy cases have ‘wrecks’ been successfully removed from the coast. (e.g. the Safmarine Agulhas from the East London breakwater and the Ikan Tanda from Misty Cliffs on the Peninsula where responsible owners and insurers were involved). Due to the impracticality of removing most wrecks as well as the high costs involved, most ‘wrecks’ are abandoned to the forces of nature, helped on their way by the judicious use of cutting torches and explosives.
What makes the SELI 1 different is the immediate proximity to the city, the port, our public amenities as well as the aesthetic considerations of a having to live with a rusting hulk against the backdrop of our magnificent mountain. Whether these considerations are sufficient to warrant spending many more millions of US dollars on the wreck is for the relevant authorities to decide, and the Joint Response Committee is standing by, ready to reconvene when there is clarity on the way forward.
So what happens if the wreck is left in situ?
The short term ramifications of the wreck are not serious. The vessel looks like any other in the bay albeit somewhat closer to the shore than usual. For now SMIT is caretaking the wreck and mopping up, which cannot continue indefinitely, and when they are removed the immediate result will be an invasion of ‘wreckers’ looking for souvenirs and anything else of value, with obvious health and safety consequences.
In the medium term, there is a chance that the coal may spontaneously ignite in the holds not yet flooded, but this could be controlled by flooding the remaining dry holds. The vessel will rust as the paint wears off and become a real eyesore, besides becoming ever more dangerous with the passing of time for people exploring the wreck. The vessel will begin to suffer structural failure which will release coal into the sea, a certain amount of which will find its way onto the beaches, especially after storms where the public will be happy to gather it up. Small amounts of trapped oil will be released from time to time, but I know that this will be swiftly dealt with by the City if past experience is anything to go by.
In the medium to long term the vessel will slowly be rendered apart by the sea and comprise of a twisted and jagged jumble of steel, presenting an extreme hazard to surfers, kite-surfers, swimmers and boaters. All the coal will eventually be released and finding coal washed up onto the beach will be common. There will also be flotsam released from the wreck as it breaks up which will also litter the beach from time to time.
In the long term, nothing will remain, perhaps only the occasional polished black stones being washed ashore, and perhaps someone will even remember where it originated.
Capt Dave Colly
South African Maritime Safety Authority