Thursday, May 30, 2013

Practical Environmentalism: Operating standards on a tank vessel

Christmas Day, 2008, North Atlantic, average weather.

You might be surprised at how hard it is on a tank ship to keep the oil in the tanks. The global standard of oil carriage at sea is "Not One Drop In The Water" under normal circumstances. This is actually a misnomer, as the real standard for keeping it clean is "No Sheen on the water," and a single drop of oil will leave a shimmering sheen.

 Let me revisit this standard. Connecting hoses to perform cargo ops, greasing and lubricating hundreds of valves and metal fittings, not to mention the myriad generators, diesel pumps on barges, and the main engine on a ship... these things throw oil. Think of your car's engine, and the fact that the oil spots in your driveway show up after the car is 6 months old. Now imagine the mess if the engine in your car was larger than your house. Imagine the oil stain under that bastard! Well, you'd be wrong. The grease spots in your driveway, well, if I let that much oil go over the side, I'd be writing this in an orange jumpsuit.

 Accidents happen. That's why they're called accidents. Unlike other industrial applications, even in a no-fault accident, someone is going to take it in the seat when oil gets in the water, even if it's not necessarily their fault. Like the Viking tradition of launching their ships by rolling them into the sea on top of fallen logs lubricated with a couple of slaves thrown in between the logs, if an accident happens and oil gets in the water, everyone's in danger of going under the bus. Sometimes, in smaller incidents, the outcome doesn't involve handcuffs and a game of 'Mama Bird/Baby Bird' with your new cell mate, but that's not a given, especially if the mortal sin of making the news happens!
When this happens, on the other hand, no one gives a shit. 

No, today's 101-level info is for visitors from my new group who will have no idea how much time and distance is covered on the deck of a tank ship by men on their hands and knees crawling between potential oil spots to make them disappear before the next rain.Click on pictures to embiggnify.

Standing at the bottom of a small tank, one of 14 on a smallish ship. Filled with heating oil, this tank has enough oil to heat every house in Boston for a day in January.

manifold (connection area) on a barge. No matter how careful you are, many gallons of oil will spill when you disconnect an oil hose, and not one drop will go on deck, or else.

We spend a lot of time looking inside the tanks sometimes. After a few minutes, you can taste colors!

connecting hoses in the rain. Uphill, both ways, and requiring a crane which will shed grease like an angry chimp sheds poop.

pumphead on the deck of a ship. 8 valves, all requiring grease weekly. x 14 pumps x 2-4valves between the tank and the manifold of the ship. That's a lot of grease, never mind the oil in the tanks, to worry about. 

the grease spots under your Prius? Imagine what would be in the water if a tanker's engineers weren't careful about caring for THIS. 

       As I mentioned, you might be surprised at how much oil ends up outside the tanks of a ship. Pipe connections can leak. Valves and engines, hoses, etc. All conspire to get a little bit of oil on deck, and multiply that by literally a thousand potential sources of oil, and couple that with a standard of practice that requires NO oil in the water. That's the workload we face as a standard of care. Consider that right now there are thousands of ships and tank vessels in the waters of the US. How often do you hear about trouble? That's a good record right there, considering how much the media loves an oil spill. Water collected on deck and in the bilges (the bottom of the engine room) is monitored for oil content. On deck, absorbent pads skim any oil from the rain/spray before it goes over the side, and when oil is transferring, nothing, not even rain, goes over the side unless there is an observer permanently stationed to look for oil. In the engine room, bilge water is run through a computerized oil/water separator before going over the side. Not using the separator comes with a mandatory prison sentence, so this is serious business. Many foreign-built ships, including cruise ships, have 'magic pipes' that bypass the separator so that there is no expense of storing waste oil. Whistleblowers who report the existence of these systems receive 6-7-figure awards.

 Operating cleanly isn't just about keeping the oil in the tanks. Engines belch exhaust, and people produce plenty of waste to be dealt with as well. All of these really require their own detailed attention, but I'll be brief, and here's the short form summary:  we are very involved and very aware of everything that goes into the air, water and waste stream on board, and all have massively-regulated standards. Quick notes:

1) Vessels have a septic system- human waste is either incinerated or goes through a biological and chemical treatment system that sends lightly-chlorinated wastewater over the side. This will not add to the coliform count and keeps the vessel from adding to the nitrogen load to the local waters, avoiding pollution. It's actually fairly effective at what it does.
2). Trash is regulated under international standards. Close to shore, worldwide, nothing can go over the side. Further out, food, metal, glass and paper can go, provided it's ground up finely. In the open ocean, it doesn't have to be ground up. UV and salt water eats up anything that will float pretty quickly, and hazardous materials including any plastic can never, ever go over the side. I can't tell you how many hours I spent picking the labels off of cardboard boxes when I was first starting out, so that the boxes could get sent over the side. In the US, for the most part it's much easier and cheaper to send all trash ashore for shipowners, rather than set and sort and hope for a longer sea voyage out in the deep to get rid of the paper and food. Conversely, a pure-O2-fed blast incinerator may also be used- the liquid oxygen feed is to ensure that the exhaust is so hot that even soot is consumed. Trash accumulated while overseas must be disposed of by licensed companies that compost the trash, sterilizing it before it is disposed of years (yes, years. It has to sit in sealed vessels to make sure the trash is inerted) later, to prevent disease and invasion of non-native plants and animals. 

           In truth, trash disposal is very expensive, and for that reason, keeping the waste stream small is encouraged, even in matters that aren't regulated. There are no plumbers, and the engineers are already working full-time, plus there's no civil services, so the crew cares for themselves, and trash is a potential source of illness. With the nearest doctor sometimes thousands of miles away, public health issues are critical. You might be surprised to learn that most sailors have far, far higher hygiene standards than you do. For us, it's more a matter of life-or-death than inconvenience to need a doctor.

One area that needs attention is the quality of the food that sailors have access to. Having fresh vegetables is not guaranteed when you have to have anywhere from a week to 75 days between grocery runs. The time to produce healthy meals from quality foods isn't always guaranteed, anyhow, and shipowners can save thousands of dollars every month by buying processed food that won't spoil, canned everything, and the cheapest sources of animal protein available. Plus, sometimes you have to get groceries in the 3rd world, and there is nobody, nowhere, more corrupt than a 3rd world provisioner. I have NEVER not had theft and expired foods be an issue when dealing with a provisioner, even a reputable one. Too much opportunity for graft. This past January, In the Netherland Antilles, we watched a supply boat with pallets of soda cans and bottled water on deck come alongside, and claim that they never received our soda and water. The provisioner's claim? "This is not New York. Coke is hard to come by." Our counterclaim? "Coke is easy to find in Somalia. Check your pants. They must be on fire." Even in the domestic trade, on places like tugboats and oil-field supply boats, there isn't a single boat owner out there who provides enough food money to feed their crew by shopping at Whole Foods. We're sailors, not rabbits, and a belly full of Quinoa isn't going to power you through 18 hours on deck, and food that is going to go bad in 3 days isn't going to help when you're a week away from shore.


jon spencer said...

A long, long time ago the first oil spill (about 1,500 gallons) that I was involved with had us cleaning up the fuel oil with straw while standing in the oil / water mix while wearing our work clothes, no PPE.
Might have been around a total of 20 guys working the cleanup.
Lots of dispersal agents were used.
They did buy us new clothes after the "clean up" was finished.
And every thing was done with no further questions after the clean up was complete.
If we tried to do anything like that today, that just scares me.
It is better now.

Paul, Dammit! said...

Yup, it's definitely still not perfect, and I know that people take shortcuts, but the regulations are only as effective as the enforcement requires them to be. Without a culture on board that is either scared to death of the white hard-hat set or gets paid to be careful, it's an uphill battle. I do my share of complaining all the time, especially when things aren't going my way, but I agree with you. As you said, mostly.

MacEvoy said...

Love your blog, I learn a ton here.This is a big shot in the dark, but would you happen to know what regulations were in place in 1964? Not necessarily for a tank vessel but for trash disposal at sea? Could you point someone to any resources for that?