Low-Cost Gas Station “Bay of Gibraltar”
by Jörn Selling
On 29 August 2022, the bulk carrier "OS35" carrying a cargo of steel bars for concrete construction collided with the anchored gas tanker "ADAM LNG" in the Bay of Gibraltar. After the collision, the captain of the "OS35" denied any damage and wanted to continue his course towards the high seas despite instructions to the contrary from the harbour master of Gibraltar. So much water had entered the ship in the Strait of Gibraltar that the only viable solution to prevent it from sinking was to ground it. The location to which it was directed a few hundred metres off the east coast of the Rock of Gibraltar was a "technical" and "responsible" decision, although it is "the last place" Gibraltar would want this situation off "its most beautiful beach", according to Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo.
The tearing of the ship in two has caused oil spills and renewed criticism of the colony's government for its management of maritime traffic. The disaster could have been much worse if the Adam LNG had leaked the contents it normally carries: 162,000 cubic metres of liquefied gas, mainly methane. Fortunately, it was empty at the time, otherwise an equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 would have become a climate bomb.
Accidents regularly occur near Gibraltar: in 2002, a refuelling operation between the ships "Perseverance" and "Vemamagna" polluted a 1.5 km stretch of beach in the bay. Filling the tanks of large merchant ships by smaller tankers is a practice called "bunkering". In 2003, the lighter "Spabunker IV" sank in the Bay of Gibraltar, and in 2007 the reefer "Sierra Nava" ran aground in the bay.
In the same year, the scrap ship "New Flame" collided with the oil tanker "Tom Gertrud" near Gibraltar and sank with 42,000 tonnes of polluting waste.
In 2008, the bulk carrier "Fedra" ran aground on the cliff face because the owner and captain turned the salvage operation into a Persian market by trying to cut the cost of towing; on the same day, the freighter "Tawe" also ran aground, but off the coast of Algeciras. All resulted in oil spills. In 2021, another oil leak occurred during bunkering, the result of a valve defect on the bulk carrier "AM Ghent", which was being refuelled.
Greenpeace has long denounced that the Bay of Gibraltar, is the "low-cost refuelling station of Europe", as thousands of ships are loaded there every year from bunkering-vessels, "without the necessary safety precautions and at a lower price than in other ports, as the "Marpol" tariff (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) is not paid in Gibraltar". The best measure to end pollution would be an agreement between the governments of Gibraltar and Spain to limit mafia bunkering in these waters.
This incident was the first time there had been cooperation
The Gibraltar government has also been repeatedly accused of not accepting Spanish technicians in the crises and the Spanish authorities of not setting up a technical commission for cooperation between Gibraltar and Spain. In this incident, for the first time, there was cooperation between the authorities on both sides, so this time the environment got off "lightly".
By 02.09, 80% of the fuel had been successfully removed from the ship's tanks, so there was no danger of a massive spill. The operation involved about 50 pumping hours, as the pumps on board the "OS 35" can pump about 15 tonnes per hour. This operation was carried out under the strictest surveillance, even using infrared drones at night. It was a delicate operation that was successful mainly thanks to the good weather.
The Port of Cadiz Authority has been working with the Government of Gibraltar, providing equipment and materials, and has facilitated the deployment of the 'OC-TECH HORIZON' vessel by Ocean Cleaner Technology, based in the Port of Cadiz, a tech-company that builds and distributes the OC-Tech® vessels, considered the best multi-function cleaning vessels in the world. The European Union has supported Ocean Cleaner Technology by twice providing the company with the best European funding line for research and development projects (Horizon H-2020). The patented OC-Tech® shallow draft catamarans have a cleaning system below deck, with continuous storage of all types of floating contaminants in different tanks: fuels, oils, algae, jellyfish, plastics, microplastics or other floating marine debris. On Sunday, 04.09., "OC-TECH HORIZON" filtered 70,000 litres of seawater, extracting 3,000 litres of hydrocarbons.
The Department of Pollution in Algeciras informed that so far no pollution has been registered on the Andalusian coast. However, Juan Franco, mayor of La Línea de la Concepción, pointed out that the oil slick had already reached the municipality's beaches, especially the western beaches in the Gibraltar Bay area. Some beaches off the Rock of Gibraltar were also affected. The authorities imposed restrictions on bathers and fishermen. Sections of coastline smeared with oil and some seabirds had to be cleaned up.
Are there insignificant oil leaks?
Small oil spills in coastal areas have far more damaging effects than those that occur offshore. Accidents and sinking do cause alarming oil spills, but they are no more harmful to marine ecosystems than the small, constant, less noticeable ones that occur every day. Although the tar residues disappear from view after a while, they remain on the seabed for a long time or are carried by the currents over long distances. Sometimes they form tar balls, which can return to the shore after the oil spill seemed to be over.
The best example of this is the recent CEPSA oil spill of "only" 500 to 2,000 litres of fuel oil in the Bay of Gibraltar, which was deemed "environmentally irrelevant" and affected a stretch of beach of "barely" 500 metres, so no damage was done to a “natural enclave of significance”. A mechanical defect in the CEPSA buoy was the cause of the leak.
The volume of a leak does not say much about its environmental impact. The impact depends on the type of oil, climatic conditions, evaporation capacity, biodegradability and, most importantly, the sensitivity of the ecosystems affected. The waters of the bay - and the Strait of Gibraltar are particularly sensitive as they are highly biodiverse, a passageway for many endangered cetaceans and sea turtles, and a migratory corridor for millions of protected birds.
The University of Seville has counted more than 1,700 animal and plant species in the “former” natural paradise of the Bay of Gibraltar, of which 50 were unknown and about 500 were found for the first time in Andalusian waters. Oil spills, even if small, reduce or prevent light penetration into the marine environment and hinder photosynthesis. Industrial development has killed off the bay's seagrass beds, which until the 1960s covered about four square kilometres of the bottom of the Bay. They served not only as a refuge for numerous animal and plant species, but also as a filter, improving water quality and transparency.
Despite everything, still much to protect
In the Bay of Gibraltar there are Common Dolphins, Striped Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins. Whales such as Orcas, Sperm Whales, Fin Whales and beaked whales have been observed. Along with sea turtles, they roam the thin boundary between sea and sky. This habitat is most severely altered by hydrocarbon pollution, as the less dense fractions accumulate at the surface and eventually affect the respiratory system of these animals, or cause poisoning when swallowed (birds when they preen their feathers).
The Eastern Strait is a unique protected area of the Natura 2000 network, home to the endangered limpet Patella ferruginea, the largest colony in Europe, barely a thousand specimens! The moment a spill enters, they die.
If the oil spill had been bigger, it would also have threatened the "Parque Natural del Estrecho", with an even greater diversity of around 2000 animal and plant species. It is part of the Intercontinental Biosphere Reserve of the Mediterranean, habitat of Precious Corals, seaweeds and algae like Laminaria ochroleuca. Pilot Whales, Striped -, Common - and Bottlenose Dolphins live here year around; Orcas, Sperm Whales, Fin Whales, Minke Whales, sea turtles, Northern Gannets, Scopoli's - and Balearic shearwaters pass through here throughout the year. Migratory birds are on the move between Europe and Africa, Black Kitess, White - and Black Storks, Honey Buzzards, Short-Toed Snake Eagles and many other gliding birds and small sparrow species, making this not only the southernmost nature reserve in Europe, but also one of the most important bird areas in the world.
High time to say goodbye to fossil fuels!
Video on the recent accident: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Hx9ti4e26A