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Two years on from Stellar Daisy sinking and we are none the wiser

One would have thought that Stellar Daisy’s sinking on March 31 two years ago would have yielded some concrete idea of what happened to prevent other similarly-converted vessels meeting the same fate. But the Marshall Islands flag says it is still working on an accident investigation report

There are still 45 very large ore carriers converted from very large crude carriers trading, according to Lloyd's List Intelligence

THIS week marks a significant moment for the shipping world, but for all the wrong reasons.

March 31 is the second anniversary of the sinking of the very large ore carrier Stellar Daisy in which 22 crewmen perished.

But two years on and lead investigator the Marshall Islands, to which the vessel was flagged, has still not provided an accident report — not even a preliminary one — from which to draw conclusions and perhaps more importantly make recommendations to avoid future tragedies. 

March 24 marked the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez accident, when the tanker ran aground in Alaskan waters, spilling 11m gallons of oil and causing major environmental pollution.

Near misses were widely reported over the weekend, when cruiseship Viking Sky and general cargo vessel Hagland Captain both suffered engine failures in inclement weather off the coast of Norway.

Exemplary Norwegian authorities 

Just three days after the incidents, the Norwegian Maritime Authority issued a preliminary determination of the cause of the engine failure on the 2007-built Viking Sky, which was carrying 1,373 people.

Kudos goes out to the NMA for acting so fast and publishing its findings which can be reviewed by the industry.

It just goes to show that where there is a will, there is certainly a way.

Public and political pressures can be powerful incentives.

Take for example, the two recent Boeing plane crashes, in Indonesia last October and Ethiopia earlier this month. The fatal accidents prompted aviation authorities around the world, including the US, to ground the 737 Max aircraft within days of the second tragedy.

Should shipping take note?  

The families of those who perished aboard the Stellar Daisy, which had been converted from a very large crude carrier to a VLOC, need closure. Industry needs answers as there are 45 such conversions still trading in the market, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence.

The risk is real, yet the Marshall Islands, which wants to carry out meticulous fact-gathering and due diligence, is sitting on potentially important information that should be disseminated to the wider industry.

“Republic of the Marshall Islands Maritime Administrator is in the final stages of completing the investigation report, which has proven to be a very complex and time-consuming process,” said Laura Sherman, a spokeswoman for the Marshall Islands.

But early in 2018 the message was being given out that the report was “imminent”.

Too many cooks

That may have been the case, but an investigation by Lloyd’s List found that the report had been sent to South Korea and the Philippines for feedback prior to publication as they are “substantially interested” parties.

While the Philippines, which had a substantial amount of crew on board the Stellar Daisy, was able to submit comments to the Marshall Islands within the stipulated timeframe of 30 days, South Korea asked for an extension, thereby delaying the process.

Late last year, South Korean authorities hired seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity to find the VLOC wreck. It took a number of days from its launch in early February 2019 to locate the voyage data recorder and to also find some human remains.

Lloyd’s List understands that it was pressure from the families of those lost that prompted the Seoul government to carry out the search, at vast expense.

The voyage data recorder is said to now be in the hands of the Marshall Islands investigating team, who are finding it difficult to assess the findings due to poor data quality. It could take many more months to get a clear idea of what happened. 

Environmental priorities

Classification society DNV GL says the shipping industry’s focus on the environment has overtaken safety in importance. 

“We need a holistic approach — looking at emissions but at the same time keeping safety at the core,” its chief executive Knut Orbeck-Nilssen said in a Lloyd’s List podcast last week. 

“We need more transparency [over the] causes for accidents and incidents,” he said, adding that it took far too long before reports were made publicly available.

“This time needs to be shorter,” he stressed, adding that all industry stakeholders needed to be more effective in sharing the content of the reports. “This is where class and DNV GL can share this information” and help to promote new regulations from lessons learned.

But while these are the kind of necessary proactive measures, the International Maritime Organization has a very loose timeframe for reports to be submitted, with submissions encouraged to be delivered as quickly as is practicable.

It has no powers of enforcement, which means there is no pressure for flag states to provide information in a timely manner.

An investigation carried out by Lloyd’s List last year concluded that 50% of reports that should have been submitted as per IMO safety rules had not been filed. 

A year after the Exxon Valdez incident, the US brought in the Oil Pollution Act, which prompted the IMO to ban single-hull tankers. Only double-hulled tankers could trade.

“There can be no doubt that safety standards have risen greatly since the grounding of the Exxon Valdez,” said Hill Dickinson partner and master mariner Ian MacLean, adding that improvements in safety had also come about through vetting programmes introduced by oil majors and other tanker charterers.

“Although there are many dry cargo vessels operated to a high standard, it is fair to say that on average, the tanker sector leads the shipping industry in respect of safety standards and that this has in part been driven by the commercial pressure exerted by charterers rather than the regulatory regimes.”

So, what is needed is industry collaboration to prevent tragedies from occurring in future.

Pressure on those responsible for producing accident investigation reports is also required so that lessons can be learned and applied and that one day, all seafarers can be safe.

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