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Iron graveyard a worry in the Gulf

Published: 
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
A capsized vessel from a fleet of 12 owned by Vietnamese businessman Nguyen Hai Chau has leaked fluid into the sea, according to an eyewitness report. PHOTO COURTESY STEVEN VALDEZ

Two ships anchored a mile off Bayshore in north western Trinidad have sunk, leaking oil and diesel into the sea, according to eyewitness reports. The ships, part of a fleet of 12, have been anchored in the harbour for over two years, clearly visible from Carenage and Glencoe, in waters close to the T&T Yacht Club. Steven Valdez, a member of the T&T Game Fishing Association, spotted one of the ships capsized and one partially submerged on Sunday and said he was “very concerned at what I saw.” 

 

 

As the vessels are in just 20 feet of water they cannot sink to the bottom, but are sticking out of the water. A further concern is that at any time more boats could capsize or sink. A contractor responsible for the management of wrecked vessels and legal affairs for the Maritime Services Division, Commodore Garnet Best, has been dealing with the owner, Nguyen Hai Chau, owner of Trinidad Vina Ltd, for more than a year. 

 

As Hai Chau paid mooring charges up untill October, the ships are not classified as abandoned, but the owner must abide by Section 334 of the Shipping Act or will be faced with the removal of his vessels. He is looking for a shipyard to hold the boats before dismantling them to sell for scrap iron. The Maritime Services Division is responsible for pollution caused by vessels, wrecks and abandoned ships. 

 

Ships that are kept long term in T&T waters are expected, under the provisions of the Shipping Act, to keep somebody onboard, be lit at night, be maintained and not pose a hazard in terms of navigation. “If you are not compliant, your ship can be removed and the owner charged the cost of removal,” Best, a former commanding officer of the Coast Guard, told the T&T Guardian, adding the measure had never actually been enforced.

 

 

Why are the vessels here?
The story of how the ships came to be left at Bayshore for over two years was told to the T&T Guardian by a marine pilot who preferred to remain unnamed. Originally owned by New Orleans-based company Tidewater Marine, which leases vessels for the offshore oil industry, the fleet was registered in Brazil, the source said. Manufactured in 1983, they reached the end of their working life in 2010 and were ready to be sold for scrap. 

 

According to the source the Brazilian Government told the US company, "Don't leave your rubbish in Brazilian waters," forcing them to look further afield for a place to leave ships while they found purchasers. Our source claimed foreign ship owners see T&T as the ideal place to leave ships, "You can arrive with a ship and can say anything to the coast guard, that you are here for repairs or waiting for orders. The Gulf of Paria is perfect, lovely and calm. There’s reasonable security... it’s away from the hurricane belt, charges for anchorage are little or nothing.”

 

The ships were first sold to Win Green Holdings LLC, another US company, then sold to Chinese businessman Vin Lee for scrap iron. Lee searched for a place to have them cut up and exported in vessels to China (scrap iron is one of T&T’s biggest exports aside from oil and gas, and China is one of the world’s biggest importers). 

 

 

Having left them just northeast of the Five Islands, away from shipping lanes, in shallow water, Lee had difficulty finding somewhere to turn the boats into scrap metal and sold them again to the current owner, Hai Chau. Now the boats have sunk, it is unclear whether the new owner has any intention of re-floating them and finishing the job.

 

 

Environmental threat?
On Sunday, Valdez noticed what he described as “old oil or fluid” seeping from the upturned boats. He sent e-mails, along with photographs of the semi-submerged vessels, to the Maritime Services Division, the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA) and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) stating: “It’s only a matter of time before the (vessels) form a cemetery of several tonnes of old metal sticking out of the water creating a terrible eyesore and a hazard for the boating and fishing community. 

 

“The EMA should also get involved now as there are hazardous fluids coming out of the sunken ships that will cause severe damage to beaches, yachts, marinas, jetties and ocean life,” he said. The EMA, in an e-mail to the T&T Guardian on Tuesday, said: “The matter of derelict vessels is not within the direct jurisdiction of the authority but rather, the Maritime Services Division (MSD). “As such, all complaints regarding derelict vessels should be addressed with the division directly... with respect to oil spills.

 

“The EMA also advises that the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs is the lead co-ordinator of the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) and in this circumstance, should be contacted for further information.” As of Tuesday, Best inspected the vessels and reported that no more fluid was seen. Asked what might have happened to the fuel on board, he said: “It may have dissipated.”

 

 

T&T becoming a dumping ground
The story of the 12 ships from Brazil is not without precedent in T&T and laws are needed on anchoring/abandoning ships in offshore waters, according to the Pilots Association and Best. Sixty or more vessels have been brought into T&T waters in the last two years, rafted together and left either to be sold for scrap metal or simply abandoned. A year ago several vessels and their crew from Taiwan were abandoned, leading to the repatriation of some crew members. 

 

Some of the vessels  sank in the harbour, leaving wrecks just below the surface of the water in Port-of-Spain, one of which may have caused the Harbour Master cruise boat to run aground during a party at low tide in September. The Pilots Association says 20 more boats arrived recently from the Far East and can be seen from the foreshore in Chaguaramas, tied together and stationary.

 

The association regularly meets with the Maritime Services Division and the Ministry of Transport and makes recommendations for charges for anchoring boats in T&T waters. A spokesman told the T&T Guardian: “In order to ensure boats are not kept here indefinitely, they ought to charge $1,000 for the first month, $10,000 for the second month and then by the third month something prohibitive like $200,000. That would give owners a clear signal that after two months it’s time to move on.

 

“Alternatively, they could put up a large bond upon arrival, if for example they need to stay for six months and can show a contract stating the intentions and destination of the ships.” Best said the Ministry of Transport was “in the process of amending the Shipping Act and strengthening the laws around abandonment.”

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