Freesteel Blog » Two environmental stories from the deck of the Dana Sirena

Two environmental stories from the deck of the Dana Sirena

Friday, August 21st, 2009 at 6:29 pm Written by:

Martin and I had an inner cabin without a window on deck 9 of the Dana Sirena on the journey back from Denmark. We passed the time eating and drinking beer in the cabin and coding.

In the morning Sky News were running this story:

A ship sent to Brazil from Britain allegedly full of nappies, condoms and other toxic waste has arrived home [to Felixstowe] after being sent back in disgust.

When the MSC Serena docked in the port of Santos, near Sao Paolo, authorites opened up a container and, instead of the clean recyclable plastic expected, they found a stinking mess of rubbish.

Cool, I thought. I’m getting a little sick of plying the waters between Harwich and Esbjerg up to two times per year on this ship where the meals are over-priced and going downhill, so it was interesting to hear it shared a name with a toxic waste ship in the same harbour at the same time. (BBC news story.)

Anyway, here’s my photo.


It’s probably only a few containers of many that contain the crap. Pretty minor issue. If you have some ships that are complete rusting hulks full of asbestos and other toxins that you haven’t been bothered to clean up for the last 40 years, they are welcome at a place further up the coast.

While at sea, the Danish captain came on the intercom and told everyone to go out on deck to see the fleet of 25 “tank ships” parked off the coast of Great Yarmouth waiting for the recession to be over so they could get a better price for their oil. He said it represented one month’s supply of oil for the whole of Europe. I think he was glad he wasn’t having to drive through the area at night. They were all higgledy piggledy.


Since this fleet hasn’t been involved in an instantaneous newsworthy event of any kind, there isn’t a story about it in the regular papers. However, I’ve found the following July 2009 letter in the Southwold Organ:

I read, with more than a little interest, the letter from the District Emergency Officer in response to local concern over the recent increase in the presence of oil tankers offshore. I first found out about the licensed ship-to-ship oil transfers about 18 months ago. This is a very serious issue, with potentially catastrophic implications for local tourism and the environment. I’ll come back to this later, but, first, I’d like to fill in some of the background and thereby take issue with some of Mike Topliss’ contentions.

Southwold is the only place in England where this activity occurs. The only other places in the UK are three Scottish locations associated with the oil industry. Oil-transportation companies tried to obtain licenses for three other locations: the Firth of Forth, Falmouth Bay and Lyme Bay. These applications encountered very strong local opposition and, in the case of the latter, it seems that STS activity has been suspended.

The reason for the oil transfers is that large tankers cannot get through to Russian oil terminals in the Baltic, so relatively small tankers (eg 60,000 tonnes) travel through into the North Sea and disgorge into supertankers, which then travel to the Far East. The type of oil is Russian Export Blend Crude, a Grade 4 very heavy and persistent product. Clearly, if ship-to-ship oil transfer was carried out in a much safer harbour/jetty situation, then the oil transporters would be liable for dues, which would impinge upon the £120-million revenue generated per trip (2005 prices). (See for Southwold STS operators.)

Although Mr Topliss mentions ‘several ships’, I’m afraid that the reality is very different. It may look like a mere handful of vessels off Southwold beach, but, if you use binoculars, then the scene changes. The farther out you look, the bigger the supertankers are. On 5th May this year, I counted 18 tankers off Covehithe cliffs; today, 16th June, there were 17 visible from outside the Sailors’ Reading Room.

Then in August the same correspondent writes:

On 23rd June, there was a sharp reminder of the goings on just off shore from Southwold. Many people in the town were assailed by a sudden strong smell of gas and even in Reydon, almost three-quarters of a mile from the sea, a short-lived, but powerful odour swept through some parts of the village.

Left with a definite ‘scorched’ feeling on the back of the throat, we wondered if someone had dropped their bottle of the new Beckham fragrance, but a call to the Marine and Coastguard Agency at Yarmouth quickly confirmed the true nature of the waft. We were victims of methyl mercaptan, a chemical used to give the ‘gassy smell’ to natural gas, and where had it come from? Yes, you’ve guessed, the floating chemical complex sitting just off shore. It seems that a rise in temperature meant that the liquified natural gas (LNG) bulk carriers had to vent their tanks for safety reasons.

Lowestoft had suffered the day before, with hundreds of calls about gas leaks and the evacuation of some schools and offices. The chemical itself is reputedly safe, but the disruption to coastal life and the masking of genuine gas leaks is simply not acceptable.

So, it seems that Southwold is now a concentration zone for a floating toxic timebomb. Not only do we have the potentially catastrophic ship-to-ship transfer of oil occurring at unprecedented levels, but added to the cocktail are LNG carriers and, according to the Wall Street Journal, amongst other sources, very large crude carriers (300,000 tonnes plus) acting as floating storage tanks for up to eight months or more.

On 13th July, there was a new and different addition to the fleet of 25 or so tankers visible from Benacre Cliffs. Quite close to the shore sat a small tug. This suggests that there is now an awareness that severe weather, coupled with a loss of power, could lead to the beaching of any one or more of these tankers. Exactly how effective this ‘protection’ might be, or who is paying for it, remains a mystery.

There is clearly an unprecedented rise in very hazardous activity just off our coast, clearly within so-called ‘territorial waters’. The Marine and Coastguard Agency seems hamstrung by the lack of effective legislation to deal with this issue in anything other than reactive fashion; in other words, after a spillage has occurred.

Maybe I’m wrong about the newspaper thing. But I can’t log on to the Wall Street Journal and look up this story. But I wonder if these license applications to do dangerous shipping maneuvers are on-line anywhere and available for webscraping. Just another thing to look into.

And so, we got off, had a coffee, and caught the next train out of town. At least they weren’t on strike like they were on the way out when I had to get my sister to drive us from Cambridge to Harwich.


  • 1. Gareth Rees replies at 5th October 2009, 12:27 pm :

    You can see this fleet of tankers on I can’t figure out how to deep-link to this site, but if you zoom in on the Suffolk coast you can clearly see about thirty tankers moored off Lowesoft and Southwold.

  • 2. Lisa Evans replies at 19th November 2009, 12:01 am :

    The Daily Mail just published this story, that is how far ahead you are:

  • 3. Julian replies at 19th November 2009, 10:55 am :

    You’ve seen the map linked to by the other commenter? I must find the source of this data and get it into scraperwiki. The maps are all very interesting, but once you get complete datasets it’s possible to calculate statistics about when they were parked up, number parked, and graph it relative to the oil price — and make economic models.

    We’re going to get more crap like this as the oil supply gets tighter.

    This is your private capitalism at work. It doesn’t work. The supply will be interrupted, and the profits will go into private pockets of evil men who will spend it on corporate jets and corrupting governments. We will be in a position of financing deliberate maladministration that will predictably get worse until our society fails.

    If this country actually looked after its own interests — such as they are — it would buy a fleet of oil tankers, rather than build those frigging nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, and then the supply would be reliable and the profits would go to public funds, and national security would be sustained. How many tankers can you get for one submarine?

    It is pure ideology that prevents this from happening. (Norway is the one country that has chosen the alternative of state control of the oil resources.) I would put this alternative into any economic model based on the evidence. It is fundamentally false that free market capitalism is efficient — except in very rare cases — yet without the data and models it is difficult to challenge this systematic lie.

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