Ships still dumping oily waste despite laws

Sharjah tanker cleaning facility near busy Gulf shipping routes operates at half capacity as captains illegally dump sludge at sea.

FUJAIRAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - February 21: Workers from the Sharjah Municipality cleaning up the beach after an oil spill off the coast of Fujairah washes up on shore in Khor Fakkan on February 21, 2008. Hundreds of oil tankers are anchored off the coast outside the UAE border and some clean their tanks illegally instead of paying money at authorized stations. According to Hanas Doolan of the Sharjah Environment Authority-Pollution Control, the spill was not heavy and would be easy to clean as it was not crude oil that spilled. (Photo by Randi Sokoloff / ADMC)
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The only plant in the country that removes oil residue from tankers is struggling for business as the ships continue to illegally dump oil waste off the UAE coast. The facility at Khorfakkan port in Sharjah is getting only half the work it could handle. The country is facing serious environmental problems with pollution from tankers, and the Emirates Environmental Protection Company is just managing to stay afloat, despite the east coast of the UAE being a major international route for tankers.

Mohammed Abu Baker, the vice president of the company that was established in Sharjah nine years ago, said its cleaning facility was designed to handle 12,500 tonnes of crude sludge and 75,000 cubic metres of slops a year. "We are not even reaching half of this," said Mr Abu Baker. He said the international auditing and consultancy firm KPMG had counted the number of vessels passing through the area, leading the company to believe that a cleaning facility of that capacity was needed and would be a worthwhile venture.

In an average month, the company cleans the tanks of two or three vessels and collects sludge from about 10 vessels. Oil tankers carrying crude oil need to clean their tanks at least once a year. An oil slick was reported on the country's east coast once a month on average last year. Many of the passing tankers are on their way to Fujairah Port, the second-largest refuelling facility in the world.

Tankers that hold the waste from cleaning their own tanks until they find a place to dump it are breaking the Federal Environment Law, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, also known as Marpol, which the UAE signed. Mohammed Fayaz, the company's marketing manager, said the regulations are widely ignored. "There are still many people who do not believe in environmental protection and dispose at sea," Mr Fayaz said. "This is the reason why beaches in Fujairah and Khorfakkan often get damaged by oil."

The illegal dumping usually occurs in international waters, about 20 to 25 nautical miles away from shore, which is harder to police. Mr Fayaz said surveillance at sea and at the ports had to be increased. Using satellite imaging and helicopters could help authorities catch violators at sea, while increasing the number of inspections on vessels visiting the country's ports would show if captains were violating the rules.

Port authorities should ask when vessels were last cleaned, how and by whom, Mr Fayaz said. Vessels are required to keep records of such things. "Owners and vessels have to be questioned. Such kind of questions are being asked more and more. However, we still do get spills, which means that enforcement is not perfect." But Mr Fayaz said there could be other factors for the company's lean times. "They might have better offers from other parts of the world," he said.

Prices at the facility vary depending on what kind of oil residue is to be cleaned. For example, it costs US$200 (Dh734) for every metric tonne of solid sludge collected. Mr Fayaz said another reason for the lack of business might be that operators want to do the cleaning and dump oil residue just before they repair their tankers. But the only repairing facility in the UAE is the Dubai Dry Docks. "If they want to do the repairs in Singapore or China, they will do the disposal there," he said.