Independent tanker owners’ organisation Intertanko has criticised governments for what it called a ‘lack of interest’ and ‘lack of initiative’ in response to reports of contaminated bunkers suspected in dozens of incidents of fouled ship engines and mechanical failures over the last several months.
In a critical review, Intertanko said there was ‘no sign of any coordinated effort to control and remove’ the contaminated fuels from the market and called for further investigation into the incidents by governments in addition to ‘serious fines’ for any parties found liable for the contamination and ‘restitution for the ships impacted’.
Intertanko said it feared the contaminated fuel would become a ‘global epidemic’ and traced the movement of contaminated fuel deliveries through its members’ reports.
“The contaminated fuels were initially supplied in the Houston (USA) area,” the report began. “Following this, the same contaminated fuels were supplied in some Caribbean ports such as Panama and then (so far) ‘exported’ and supplied to Singapore and Malaysia. We fear that this will become a global epidemic with the possibility of disastrous events.”
The Intertanko report mentioned the US Coast Guard (USCG), saying a solitary USCG safety alert from June was not enough assurance given the potential for severe consequences.
“The contaminated fuel will in many cases lead to engine failures and associated losses of propulsion,” the Intertanko report said, “placing the safety of the affected ship and crew at risk. These may, in turn, affect the safety of navigation for other ships that are sailing close to the affected ships resulting in events such as grounding collisions with loss of life and severe damage to the environment.”
Saying, ‘it is not for Intertanko to draw a conclusion’, the report chronicled what in a separate press release Intertanko said were ‘large numbers of ships, including tankers’ that had experienced mechanical failures.
All of these ships, it said, had fuel samples taken during delivery and tested at ‘reputable laboratories’, tests which showed compliance with ISO-F-RMG 380 grade.
The report cited a litany of mechanical problems for ships using the fuels during sea passages, resulting in some ship operators putting their fuels through more stringent quality testing procedures.
“Ship operators with ships that have experienced such issues requested advanced analytical test techniques like Gas Chromatography combined with Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) to determine [a] reliable source of the problem,” the report said.
Intertanko cited laboratory reports showing statistically significant quantities of the phenolic compound 4-cumylphenol – an assertion backed up by a Veritas Petroleum Services fuel analysis first reported by Platts in May. The 4-cumylphenol compound can cause engine issues such as sticking fuel plungers and fuel pump failure, and the VPS report cited its use in industrial resins due to its adhesive qualities.
The presence of the 4-cumylphenol compound has prompted speculation, including from Intertanko, that the source of the contamination is petrochemical streams used as ‘cutter stock’ to lower viscosity in high sulphur fuel oils (HSFO) when light cycle oils, or distillates, are in short supply.
“Cutter stock is generally a clean light petroleum distillate used to reduce the viscosity of high viscosity residual fuel oils in order to bring the fuel to ‘on spec’,” the report said. “However, due to economic reasons blenders/suppliers allegedly do switch to cheaper alternatives of cutter stocks which contain contaminants like 4–Cumyl–Phenol. Although it is not for Intertanko to draw a conclusion, advanced test results may indicate that in these cases multiple waste products from multiple sources seem to have been combined into bunker fuel as cutter stock.”
The International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA) commented on the contaminated bunkers in mid-June and posted an updated statement to its website on 31 July asking for support to develop solutions to the problem.
Acknowledging it was aware of over 100 anecdotal reports of the sometimes severe mechanical failures reported onboard affected vessels, IBIA said the cause of the fuel contamination remains unclear and that assigning blame to ‘inappropriate’ cutter stocks amounted to speculation.
“A common view is that the fuels causing sticking of fuel pumps contain compounds that may have been introduced into the supply chain via inappropriate cutter stocks used in the production of bunkers at one or more refineries and/or terminals. However, this is purely speculation,” the IBIA statement said.
IBIA said that similar cases of fuel contamination in the past – which resulted in lengthy lawsuits – did not result in a conclusive source of contamination being found but “the root cause was by and large a lack of control of the quality of cutter stock used in the marine pool”.
However, IBIA’s statement did not rule out the likelihood of other sources of contamination causing mechanical failures.
“There is also the possibility that the problems stem from cross-contamination due to a new product cargo being loaded into multi-purpose storage tanks that were not sufficiently emptied and cleared. Another view is that the cases are not all related and that, where only sludge formation has been reported, it could have been caused by incompatibility between a new product and existing residues remaining in tanks,” the IBIA report said.
In addition to taking governments to task over the perceived lack of investigation, Intertanko responded to 'some authorities' who openly questioned in media reports whether the shipping industry was using fuel contamination claims as a diversionary tactic. In a press release, Intertanko accused those authorities of their own diversion designed to hide 'guilty parties'.
“Instead of considering the gravity and risk associated with these events, some authorities are questioning in the media whether the events are being used by shipping as an attempt to delay the enforcement of the 2020 sulphur regulations. Intertanko believes that this may well be a deliberate diversion to keep any guilty party out of the spotlight.”
The ‘ultimate request’ from its membership, according to Intertanko “is that fuel blenders and fuel suppliers should be required to fully warrant the quality of their fuels.”