Anchor May Have Caused Balikpapan Pipeline Breach

Image courtesy WALHI

Published Apr 19, 2018 2:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

Indonesia's environment ministry has ordered the oil company Pertamina to clean up a 40,000-barrel spill at the port of Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. A forensic investigation determined that the crude came from a ruptured Pertamina oil pipeline under Balikpapan Bay. Separately, an analysis by the Indonesian Navy's hydrography division indicates that a merchant vessel may have caused the spill by catching the pipeline with its anchor. 

Shortly after the leak began, the oil on the surface of the bay caught fire, killing five fishermen. The cause of the fire has not been established, but the owner of the Ever Judger, a bulker that was present at the time of the incident, alleges that it was intentionally set by port workers in an attempt to contain the spill. 

The spill is believed to be the worst environmental incident in Indonesia in a decade, with 600 acres of mangrove forests and 18,000 acres of the bay affected. The cause of the leak has not been determined, and investigations continue. However, the harbormaster for Balikpapan, Sanggam Marihot, asserted Monday that the Ever Judger may have dropped anchor in the pipeline area, dragging the pipe and bursting it. After the spill, the pipeline was found about 300 feet from its original position. 

On Wednesday, that hypothesis received additional backing from the Indonesian Navy's top hydrographer, who claimed that the Judger's anchor was the "likely" cause of the leak. The vessel was the only one in the area at the time of the spill, according Harjo Susmoro, the head of the service's oceanography division, and a scan of the bottom found a 500-yard-long furrow in the seabed that would be consistent with a dragged anchor. “We suspect the undersea pipe rupture was caused by the ship’s anchor,” he said. Police investigators in Kalimantan hope to use lab tests to compare substances found on the Judger's anchor and those on the pipeline to indicate whether the vessel was involved. 

Regardless of the proximate cause of the spill, Indonesia's Environment and Forestry Ministry determined that Pertamina's infrastructure inspection regimen and spill-prevention programs were inadequate. In addition, it asserted that Pertamina's refinery at Balikpapan did not have an automated monitoring system for the pipeline, which could have detected the spill earlier and helped to reduce the amount of oil released into the environment. In addition to other administrative sanctions, the ministry ordered Pertamina to take responsibility for the cleanup. 

According to Pertamina president Elia Massa Manik, the company has already committed about $60 million to a cleanup effort involving over 5,000 local residents. In addition, it has set up eight medical facilities in the affected area, he said. The firm's refining division intends to pay out compensation to citizens who suffered damages due to the spill.