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Court Fines Master for Pumping Out Cargo Hold's Bilges in a Storm

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Published Sep 14, 2023 10:51 PM by Paul Benecki

The Maritime Disciplinary Court of the Netherlands has fined the captain of a Dutch cargo vessel for pumping out the bilges of a hold during a storm - bilges that he did not realize were partially flooded with fuel oil.

On February 7, 2022, the general cargo ship Alaskaborg departed Baie Comeau, Quebec, a small seaport on the eastern stretch of the St. Lawrence River. The vessel was under way for Rotterdam, carrying a load of crushed carbon anodes (a waste material from aluminum production). 

On the evening of February 9, the vessel was under way off Newfoundland in stormy conditions. At 1630, the duty engineer reported a bilge alarm from the bilge well in the number-two cargo hold. The engineers started up the bilge ejector pump, as per the normal procedure, but the alarm did not turn off and the ejector vacuum level showed that there was still fluid in the bilge. 

The chief engineer consulted with the captain and the chief mate about the next steps to take. It had been snowing while the ship was loading in Baie Comeau, and they suspected that the bilge alarm might be from melting snow or seawater ingress, which had occurred previously. The ship was rolling and pitching, with water on deck, and the captain decided that it was too dangerous to send a crewmember forward to check the hold that night. Instead, he agreed with the chief engineer to keep the bilge ejector running until daylight and await better weather. 

At 0800 hours the next morning, the engineer stopped the bilge ejector, and the chief mate went forward to check out the number-two hold. He discovered that the d-rings securing a tweendeck hatch had broken loose, allowing the hatch to fall into the hold and cut a hole into the side of a fuel tank. Very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO) had mixed with the cargo in the hold and had collected in the bilge well on the port side forward. 

The bilge ejectors had been running for about 12 hours, pumping part of the leaked fuel oil spill out and over the side. The maximum possible amount released was about 55 cubic meters of oil; all of the slick dissipated, according to the Canadian Coast Guard, and the reported environmental damage along the coast was limited to seven oiled birds.

The Netherlands' Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) charged the captain with running the bilge ejector without knowing what was being pumped, causing the VLSFO to be spilled over the side "due to incorrect assumptions." The ILT inspector also claimed that the master should have considered additional possible sources of a bilge alarm on only one bilge well, beyond snowmelt or water ingress. 

The disciplinary court ruled that the master made a reasonable assumption that the bilge alarm was either water ingress or snowmelt and "should not have considered another cause," since there was no reason for the crew to foresee a fuel leak in the cargo hold. However, the court also ruled that the master should have had the bilge contents pumped into a ballast tank in order to keep the substance contained, as a hedge against the chance that the unknown fluid in the hold was not water. (It was technically possible to pump the bilges into a ballast tank, but there was no official procedure for doing so, and the master was not aware that it was a possibility.)

The court imposed a fine of about $1,000 on the master, with an additional suspended fine of $1,000 to be forfeited in the event of a probation violation.