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S. Africa Suspends Bunkering Service in Algoa Bay Following Spill

algoa bay spill
Image courtesy SAMSA

Published May 27, 2022 8:57 PM by Njiraini Muchira

South Africa authorities have suspended offshore bunkering services following an oil spill during a transfer operation in Algoa Bay near the port of Ngqurha on the eastern seaboard of the country.

Barely two months after the government lifted a ban on bunkering services that had been in place since 2019, South Africa has been forced to suspend the services after two vessels belonging to Minerva Bunkering spilled oil in the bay.

Government agencies said the oil spill occurred when bunker tanker MT Lefkas and the motor tanker Umnenga II were undertaking an oil transfer operation on Monday (May 23), an incident that prompted authorities to launch containment and extraction measures including the suspension of ship-to-ship transfers until further notice.

The authorities also launched investigations to establish the cause of the spillage and the exact quantity of oil spilt in the incident. South Africa had just lifted a ban on bunkering services on April 1, a move that was opposed by several organizations that warned it posed risks to the environment.

Environmentalists and conservationists were opposed to lifting of the bunkering services moratorium imposed in 2019 because of risks to the foraging and breeding grounds of endangered marine species like the iconic African penguin. Three oil spills have occurred as a direct result of fuel ship-to-ship bunkering over the past six years, and they argued that lifting the ban would endanger Algoa Bay’s marine biodiversity.

Ironically, the incident occurred just 10 days after the country’s multisectoral Interim Incident Management Organization (IMOrg) under the Department of Transport conducted a five day training and live mock oil spillage management exercise near Robben Island in Western Cape.

“The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has initiated all relevant oil spill response teams as per the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan to assist with the containment and cleanup operation following an oil spill In Algoa Bay,” said SAMSA in a statement.

Part of the containment measures have been the deployment of five oil recovery boats that are being used to collect the oil and the use of a helicopter to carry out aerial surveillance and  assist in directing the boats towards the oil sheen for collection. The cleanup operation has been impeded by rough sea conditions, forcing the agencies to suspend it at some points.

The DFFE offshore patrol vessel Sarah Baartman was also deployed in Algoa Bay to assist in the operations.

“Oil spill modelling provided by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation indicates that the oil will not impact the Swartkops River nor (Nelson Mandela Bay) Metro beaches, but will drift eastward towards the beaches of Woody Cape,” said SAMSA in an update on Wednesday.

It added that as the cleanup continues, no oiled birds or wildlife have been spotted so far with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds being put on a high state of readiness to receive oiled birds.

By Wednesday, the two tankers were still docked alongside each other as a preventative measure, with the government agencies evaluating whether it was safe to bring the MT Lefkas into port while Umnenga II remained offshore in the bay until a berth was available at the port of Ngqura.