Thousands of ships fitted with ‘cheat water treatment devices‘ cause ocean pollution and violate emissions regulations

All ships are required to reduce air pollution by using cleaner fuel by 2020. The owners started to adjust; however, not as expected.

So-called scrubbers discharge a liquid and pump it into the ocean. The ship owners satisfy the emissions regulations, but on the other hand, such a solution has a damaging effect on water and seal life.

In compliance with the regulation imposed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), all ships are required to reduce air pollution by using cleaner fuel by 2020.

In practice, the sulphur content in the fuel must be cut from 3.50% to 0.50%. To comply with the regulation, the ship owners install a special ‘emissions cheat’ system on a grand scale.

How to get around the regulations

A report published by the Nature says 400,000 premature deaths a year are caused as a result of maritime transport. The maritime transport causes lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases as well as asthma.

As a response to these findings, the International Maritime Organization introduced a regulation binding all ship owners to use cleaner fuel with a lower sulphur content from 1 January 2020. As the end of 2019 approaches, the owners started to adjust; however, not as expected.

Instead of buying cleaner fuel complying with the standards, they install a cheating systems called open-loop scrubbers. These scrubbers are placed mainly in the heating oil-propelled vessels.

Example of an open-loop scrubber
Example of an open-loop scrubber. Retrieved from:

The fuel contains sulphur which is washed in the scrubber. As a by-product, a liquid containing harmful substances is released during the process. Furthermore, the installation of scrubbers increases the fuel consumption by about 2 per cent. And there is more!

The major concern is that the discharged liquid is pumped into the ocean from the scrubber, posing a risk to water and sea life. The non-profit organization International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates that for every ton of fuel burned, each ship creates around 45 tons of contaminated, acidic ocean water, filled with carcinogens and heavy metals.

Thousands of violators

The exhaust gas cleaning systems have been installed in 3,756 vessels so far. Only 65 of them have been outfitted with closed-loop scrubbers which prevent the discharge into the ocean. Other 677 vessels have been equipped with hybrid scrubbers which can open and close the loop.

The owners of ships for bulk cargo, container ships, and oil tankers were most interested in buying these ‘special devices‘. These ships have engines with the highest performance which makes them the strongest polluters.

Lucy Gilliam, an environmental campaigner, said in an interview for the Independent that increasing volumes of wastewater will create toxic sediment. In her opinion, in the North Sea and the English Channel, the water quality has already been heavily degraded, having an adverse effect on sea life.

Cruise ships which also followed this trend are a particular concern

Cruise ships which also “followed this trend” are a particular concern. “About half of the world’s roughly 500 cruise ships have or will soon have scrubbers installed,” says Bryan Comer, a researcher at ICCT. The cruise ships operate in some of the most beautiful and pristine areas on the planet, making this all the more concerning.

Investment with high return

Open-loop scrubbers cost between £1.6m and £8.1m per ship. The final price depends on the vessel. According to Bryan Comer’s estimations, if £2.4m per ship are spent to install scrubbers, this dishonest action will cost £9.7bn in total. The Guardian’s analysis suggests the cost of buying and fitting a scrubber would be recovered in the first year.

This means that the ship owners would rather buy a cheating device and avoid paying for cleaner fuel of $300 to $500 a ton.

It would be smarter to use the resources for technological enhancements to ensure zero emissions.

Maybe not the best but certainly more reasonable action would be to install the above mentioned closed-loop scrubbers which store and discharge the harmful substances into special devices in port. Ned Molloy, an analyst, finds this solution an “environmental dodge” for they still produce waste.

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