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Oil spills on the outlaw sea

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outlaw-seaI finally read William Langewiesche’s 2004 The Outlaw Sea: a world of freedom, chaos, and crime, that was calling to me from my groaning shelves of unread books.

A very good book, that, thought it is really a somewhat disconnected series of essays.  The book opens with the issue of flags of convenience, continues with piracy (with the very compelling story of the hijacked Alondra Rainbow, which reads like a high-seas adventure thriller), oil spills, moves on to the harrowing story of the sinking of the ferry Estonia on the run between Stockholm and Tallinn on the Baltic Sea, to finish with the ship breakers in Alang.

The book provides a fascinating insight into a world that very few of us know about – a realm of danger, naked ambition and risk taking, and shirked responsibilities.

In this respect the chapter on oil spills is quite an eye-opener.  Langewiesche details the story of the 1976 Argo Merchant sinking near Nantucket, spilling eighty million gallons of oil, creating a six thousand square mile slick.  This story sets the stage for a description of the difficulties inherent in regulating ocean-going vessels.

It was not long lost on the American public that the Argo Merchant was a foreign vessel sailing inside American waters, deriving profit from the US trade operating beyond coast guard control.

The wreck of the Amoco Cadiz

The wreck of the Amoco Cadiz

The book continues with the spills from the Exxon Valdez, Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, and others main ones that had occurred up to 2003 (including the Haven, Prestige, Aegean Sea, Braer, Erika, Kristal, and Sea Empress), all except the Exxon Valdez flying flags of convenience.  Langewiesche details efforts by various jurisdictions to implement safety regulations including double hulls (finally in place by 2010 for Europe and the US). 

But here’s the clincher: regulations are nearly impossible to enforce, and double hulls may not make much difference.  Langewiesche quotes retired US Coast Guard officer Daniel Sheehan, who instructed his staff to study the circumstances of the Exxon Valdez spill:

The engineers concluded that the grounding would have torn through a double hull as well…there was no reason to believe that a double hull design (not inherently stronger than single hull design and possibly more prone to corrosion) addressed the accident that had actually occurred.

Nor would double hulls have helped in the other spills.  This is particularly timely knowledge, given the recent media barrage promoting pipelines across BC, and their tanker ports.  For instance,  John Hunter recently asserted that

much of this [tanker spills] history occurred before radar, GPS, tethered tugs, double hulls, coastal pilots, and other improvements.

This should already be taken with a grain of salt by everyone who followed the 2010 Shen Neng spill in Australia. But after reading The Outlaw Sea, such claims arguments ring cruelly hollow.  The open sea remains an outlaw domain – people and the environment suffer, new technology or not; and it’s sufficient reason to oppose the pipeline and tanker port projects.

Burtynsky's photo of ship braking in India

Burtynsky’s photo of ship braking in India

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Written by enviropaul

September 15, 2013 at 12:05 pm

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