Performing salvage in a climate of fear


Arnold Witte, President, International Salvage Union

Delay is the enemy of success in the business of marine salvage. Nothing is more important than timely, decisive intervention whenever a casualty threatens. Yet political interests and fear of the dire economic and financial consequences of an adverse environmental event, may often stand in the way of success. They can hinder the salvor in his efforts to use his “best endeavours” to salve property as well as prevent pollution.

The obvious example of such problems is the Prestige disaster. In this case, the reluctance to offer a safe haven for this laden tanker, in its damaged condition, virtually guaranteed its eventual destruction and as a consequence created an environmental disaster.

The refusal to grant refuge was a significant contributor to this total loss and a spill resulting in clean-up costs and compensation claims exceeding EUR 1 billion. In the current climate of fear it is virtually impossible to gain access to a refuge whenever some degree of pollution is an active possibility. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult even when all tanks are intact and there is no immediate threat of pollution.

Refusal, of course, can take many forms. Rejection is often of an indirect nature, with demands for huge financial guarantees, in the certain knowledge that such terms cannot be met.

Naturally, the fear of pollution can become a self-fulfilling reality if an Administration is frozen into indecision. In many circumstances, it is very difficult to identify the right course of action. This becomes easier, however, when fair weight is given to the professional opinion of the Salvage Master on the spot.

This means taking account of the Salvage Master’s experience and his ability to size up the situation and propose action which, at first glance, might not appear in accord with the priorities of the shore authority’s response procedures. The authority might insist, for example, that no attempt be made to refloat a grounded casualty until its bunkers have been removed. This principle may be good in the generic sense, but what of the specific case? The authorities might decide to ignore the Salvage Master’s recommendation that an immediate refloating attempt be made on a forthcoming Spring Tide. Any postponement of a refloating attempt could come with a heavy price, if bad weather subsequently turns bunker removal into a difficult, protracted operation. The delay could see a rapid and significant deterioration in the casualty’s condition, turning what could have been a prompt refloating into an expensive, two or three-season wreck removal.

An inappropriate fear of pollution could dictate the course of events, heavily inflate the costs of casualty response and, in the final analysis, increase the pollution risks. It is important, therefore, for shore authorities to take their command and control decisions on the basis of salvage expertise working together with appropriate regulatory authorities and other environmental responders.

Delays in the salvage response may arise when any form of inappropriate instruction or restriction is imposed. In some cases it may be entirely appropriate to insist on the total containment of heavily contaminated or organic based wastewaters, polluted with chemical mixtures and oily wastes. Equally, there may be no environmental justification for the imposition of such restrictions for lightly contaminated wastewaters, given that delays could increase the overall risk of severe pollution. Dumping of ballast water is a prime example. In short, flexibility and an eye on the broader picture are essential, if correct decisions are to be taken at all stages of a salvage.

Members of the International Salvage Union have an excellent track record in recovering property and preventing pollution, but they do not achieve these successes in isolation. A positive outcome depends on good cooperation between the parties involved, including shore authorities. In many instances, the quality of the working relationship between salvor and shore authority is the critical success factor.

It is against this background that the ISU is progressing its “Best Practice Guidelines for Marine Casualty Management”. This guidance aims to promote timely, fully integrated response by salvors, crew, owners, coastal states and national response agencies. We plan to complete this project in the first half of 2009, as the salvage industry’s continuing contribution to efforts to produce a swift, successful conclusion which almost always minimises or eliminates environmental damage while saving life and property.