By Steve Painter
Ageing, single-hulled oil tankers such as the Braer, banned from US ports since 1989, are still plying some of Australia's most environmentally sensitive waters. Under regulations adopted after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the US will accept only double-hulled tankers, which are less likely to spill their loads in the event of a grounding or collision. Australia still accepts single-hull vessels.
To make matters worse, most tankers visiting Australia take a route through the inside passage of the Barrier Reef, waters classed by the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Communications as three to five times more dangerous than most other heavily trafficked coastal routes. Around 200 tankers of up to 100,000 tonnes take this route each year.
Driven by savage international competition which has led to a dramatic decline in ship safety in recent years, most tankers take the reef route because it is shorter than the most likely alternative, a safer route down the WA coast.
A similar logic led directly to the Braer disaster. The 17-year-old tanker was attempting to take the shortest route between Norway and Canada, rather than a safer but longer route. Thus, the Braer was in dangerous waters near an exceptionally environmentally sensitive region when its engines failed in the midst of a hurricane. Had it been in more open waters the Braer might have drifted for hundreds of miles without hitting land, allowing more time to repair the vessel or take it under tow.
A recent Australian parliamentary inquiry into shipping noted a dramatic decline in ship safety in recent years. Between 1988 and 1991 dry cargo shipping losses worldwide increased from around 133,000 to 1,165,000 tonnes, and loss of lives in this class of shipping increased from 39 to 149. The Australian inquiry concentrated on dry cargo shipping, rather than tankers, following the loss of seven iron ore carriers off the WA coast between 1990 and 1992.
The inquiry noted a comment at a 1991 conference of the International Union of Marine Insurance: "Economic pressures are keeping vessels in service longer and the age profile of the world bulk fleet is steadily worsening. Vessels in a weakened condition due to age and to wear and tear are literally falling apart on the high seas due to a lethal combination of heavy cargo and heavy weather."
The economic pressures leading to lower safety standards affect every aspect of shipping, beginning in the construction yard, where less steel is being used due to the introduction of thinner, high tensile steel. However, unless it is specially coated, the thinner steel corrodes at the same rate as the old, mild steel, leading to a weakening of the ship at an earlier age. As well, ship inspections have become less stringent because of competition among the companies that carry them out, and competition among governments that derive revenue from registering ships.
Another problem identified by the inquiry was a steadily increasing exploitation of ships' crews. As traditional shipping companies are increasingly replaced by investment conglomerates, the pressure increases to shave costs, often at the expense of safety.
Crewing is routinely cut to the bare minimum, and in some cases below the level necessary to run the ship in emergency situations. More often, crews are insufficient to carry out routine maintenance.
Often, inexperienced crews, sometimes with forged qualifications, are recruited from low wage countries. Pay books are falsified to conceal the underpayment of these crews. The inquiry also found evidence of crew members being underfed and subject to beatings and even sexual abuse.
In some cases, crews were unable to function properly because of language problems. There have been suggestions that this was the case on the Braer, with its Greek/Filipino crew.
Maintenance may also have been a problem on the Braer, as there have been reports of Polish engineers on board prior to the disaster, presumably attempting to repair the engines or fuel lines while the ship was at sea. The Braer lost its engines when sea water got into the fuel.
It seems the Braer was by no means the worst of many ageing ships plying the high seas as investment companies routinely gamble with crew members' lives and the world environment. The Australian inquiry even reported instances of ships sold for scrap being pressed back into service by particularly unscrupulous operators.