Grounding of the MV ‘Solomon Trader’
Salvors are battling to save a bulk carrier and minimise pollution following its grounding on a sensitive reef on Rennell Island, part of the remote Solomon Islands.
Elsewhere in this Seawork edition of MJ mention is made of the difficulties emergency responders including the salvors face when a ship comes to grief in a remote location, the sense of urgency increasing when the incident involves pollution from the ship’s fuel tanks and a possibly polluting cargo.
Heavy plant and vessels required for the actual salvage operation along with the all-important specialist pollution response personnel and equipment may be days or even weeks away meaning the risk to the environment is increased.
The 1994-built, 75,392dwt bulk carrier Solomon Trader flies the Hong Kong flag and is listed as owned by Honk Kong-based King Trader Ltd. In February this year, while under charter to Indonesia-based Bintan Mining the vessel dragged its anchor and ran aground on a reef off Rennell Island, part of the Solomon Islands and close to the largest raised coral atoll in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Problems with the vessel’s machinery was also reported as possibly being a factor in the chain of events that led to its stranding.
Solomon Trader was loading bauxite from a mine on the island in inclement weather conditions at the time and weather was to have an influence in responding to the incident with a cyclone hampering early attempts to salvage the vessel.
Concern about the threat to the local environment was summed up by Roderick Brazier, High Commissioner to Solomon Islands who was reported as saying on social media: “Australia is concerned about the unfolding environmental disaster caused by the MV Solomon Trader oil spill on Rennell Island. We are exploring all options to assist the Solomon Islands Government to hold the responsible company, owners and insurers to account.”
An initial 60 to 70 tonnes of oil spilled from the vessel, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency stating a further 600 tonnes of oil remained on board. It was reported that the vessel’s P&I insurer Korea Protection and Indemnity Club (KP&I) appointed US-based Resolve Marine to oversee the incident response and onboard power was restored to the vessel allowing one of its deck cranes to lift salvage equipment on board.
Weather continued to be a factor with the operation and salvage divers were involved in conducting an external examination of Solomon Trader with a view to managing any breaches in the hull with KP&I stating: “The task of transferring some 600 tonnes of fuel oil on the vessel to higher and safer tanks is progressing, with a view to the oil being pumped to a barge. Another priority is dealing with some 70 tonnes of fuel oil that has leaked into the coastal waters. Boom placement and shoreline cleaning is underway, in accordance with recommendations from international oil spill experts.”
Assistance was mobilised from several sources and with the spilt oil covering an area up to 6km along the shore, the Solomon Islands government requested assistance from Australia to contain the spill and prevent it affecting the World Heritage site. Australia responded by sending an offshore pollution response team backed up by equipment and ships.
Meanwhile, personnel and specialist equipment from a number of countries including: Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Singapore, the US and Europe responded but with limitations at the local airport much of the heavy equipment including pumps and generators had to make the journey to the ship by sea.
With estimates that the quantity of oil initially lost may have been higher than expected lightering operations continued with the arrival of a barge towed to the site from Vanuatu. Remaining oil that escaped into the sea from damaged tanks through a breach in the hull was removed with only minor residual amounts being detected thereafter. Oil spill containment booms were deployed around the vessel with the majority of oil that did escape drifting into the open ocean where it dispersed although KP&I stated that some oil had caused “unacceptable” coastal damage.
Meanwhile the Solomon Islands government issued a wreck removal order for the vessel and experts continued to assess the immediate area as a plan to refloat the vessel was formulated.
By Peter Barker
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