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Sunday, November 18, 2018

MEPC rejects Korea’s post-Hebei Spirit proposal to amend MARPOL Annex 1

Subsequent to  the final Korean Supreme Court's decision on the Hebei Two where the Master and Chief Officer were found guilty inter alia of criminal negligence for the oil spill from the VLCC Hebei Spirit in December 2007, Korea proposed at the IMO the addition of a new paragraph to Regulation 30 of MARPOL Annex I on pumping, piping and discharge arrangements, whereby the connection of an oil tanker’s cargo tanks with its ballast tanks would be allowed in an emergency in order to minimise pollution.

We were relieved to note that, following debate by the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 59), the Committee did not agree to these proposed amendments, rejecting Korea’s proposal.

The oil industry and the tanker industry, represented by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) and INTERTANKO, provided the MEPC with comments to the effect that the proposed amendments, if accepted, should apply only to single-hull oil tankers whose number is in rapid diminution as a result of MARPOL phase-out. They continued that in order to do this, it would be necessary to retrofit the ballast tanks of existing tankers with pressure/vacuum valves, flame arrestors and inert gas – and that even with such facilities in place, it is doubtful whether a spill could be averted in time in an emergency situation.

They then added a note of caution that if the proposed amendment was also intended in future for double-hull oil tankers, then this would defy the intention of MARPOL’s transforming the tanker fleet from single to double hull.

This MEPC decision backs up the line taken by INTERTANKO and the industry that the Hebei Two acted in an exemplary manner during the Hebei Spirit incident, behaving in a way that was fully consistent with international tanker standards and practices which emphatically put the safety of seafarers first.


However while Korea declared the Hebei Two not guilty of “destruction of the vessel” charges (the only charge which carried the possibility of a jail sentence), it found them guilty of criminal negligence for the collision and the oil spill. 


Regarding the allision, they were found guilty of such things as:


  • their choice of anchoring position (although they were exactly where the VTS had told them to anchor);
  • negligence in paying out the anchors to allow the (towing vessel and tow) “Marine Spread” to pass ahead;
  • negligence in not running the main engine full astern to break out the anchor when the “Marine Spread” subsequently broke a tow wire.  


Regarding the oil spill, they were found guilty of a number of items including:


  • not listing the vessel more to starboard;
  • injecting inert gas into the damaged area, where it is alleged the resulting increase in pressure due to the inert gas forced more oil out;
  • not shutting off air vents and PV valves, which the Korean Marine Safety Tribunal allege would have created a partial vacuum and stopped the oil flowing out, and therefore they were found to have been negligent in causing most of the oil spill.


The Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal (KMST) has continuously criticised the officers and crew of the Hebei Spirit, specifically asserting that the Hebei Spirit failed to react adequately for 2.5 hours after the allision, undertaking oil spill prevention measures in a ‘passive’ manner; and also claiming that the oil pollution was aggravated by inappropriate emergency action taken by the Hebei Spirit after the allision which, it claims, increased the speed at which the oil spilled.


We believe that the decisions of the KMST are technically flawed and therefore that the Tribunal drew unjust conclusions - which were used as evidence by the Appeal Court. INTERTANKO’s expert witness statement to Korea’s Supreme Court refers to the very real threat of explosion following a collision/allision and highlights the absolute priority to ensure the safety of the crew and the ship. It also emphasises the various steps that best practice in tanker safety and good seamanship demands in order to protect life, the vessel, its cargo and the environment, showing that such good practice was followed in an exemplary way by the Hebei Spirit.


Contact: Bill Box