Blazing Ship Spills Oil Near South African Wetland

RICHARDS BAY, South Africa, September 17, 2002 (ENS) - Cracks are opening in the hull of a burning Italian cargo ship grounded offshore of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park on South Africa's east coast. An estimated 450 metric tons of oil have already spilled from the vessel into the waters near the country's first World Heritage Site, but so far the fragile wetland environment has been spared.

National, state and salvage company officials met today in Richards Bay in a strategy session to deal with the blazing vessel. A plan to tow it out to sea and sink it have been abandoned because the temperatures are too high for salvage crews to approach and cracks in the hull widened overnight.


The Jolly Rubino burns offshore of Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park. (Photo courtesy Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park)
The plan now is to pump the remaining 800 tons of oil off the Jolly Rubino into a tug that would be secured near the damaged ship. The 31,262 ton container ship had 1,100 tons of fuel on board as well as hazardous chemicals.

An engine room fire broke out on Tuesday and the stricken Jolly Rubino, pushed by a strong southerly wind, drifted ashore two kilometers north of the Cape St. Lucia lighthouse. It touched bottom on Thursday, Kwa-Zulu Natal (KNZ) officials said.

All 22 crew members were lifted to safety in heavy weather by the National Ports Authority chopper based at Richards Bay. They have been flown back to Italy. The Jolly Rubino had been sailing from the South African port of Durban to Mombasa in Kenya.

The powerful Smit Salvage tug Wolraad Woltemade has arrived at the scene from Cape Town and is on standby while salvage experts evaluate the situation. It joins the Anchor Handler vessel Pentow Service that has been monitoring the situation.

An aerial survey of the vessel yesterday revealed that strong explosions were occurring in the burning sections, and the deck temperature of the vessel was measured at 450 degrees Centigrade.


A crack in the Jolly Rubino's hull (Photo courtesy Zululand Observer)
Smit Salvage said in a statement today, "The visible pollution runs parallel to the coast in a southwesterly direction until about 600 meters (1,968 feet) southwest of the casualty. It then heads directly out to sea in a southerly direction and at nine kilometers (5.5 miles) out breaks up into sheen."

The fire has spread through the vessel and this has made it extremely dangerous for salvage teams to get aboard.

The disabled ship is lying on a sandbank about 300 meters (984 feet) offshore and is being buffeted by a strong swell, although local KZN Wildlife staff say that the wind has dropped and is due to change to a northerly direction.

The ship's cargo includes combustible acetone and methanol as well as the toxic chemical phenol, Captain Mike Brophy, port master for Richards Bay, told reporters.

"The substance about which there is the most concern is phenol, which was stored on deck in containers," Smits said. "A few heavily damaged containers thought to contain hazardous cargo are still on deck."


Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
"At a later stage, once the fire is under control, these containers will be fully inspected by chemical experts and salvage personnel," the company said.

The situation has serious environmental dangers as an oil spill from the disabled vessel will threaten the St. Lucia and Umfolozi River Estuaries with their sensitive mangrove and other biological communities, as well the entire coastline of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, KWA Wildlife Service officials said today.

They expressed concern that a spill would negatively impact ecotourism along the beaches of the park.


Hippos in St. Lucia Wetland Park (Photo courtesy Uthungulu District Municipality)
Park officials say a makeshift retaining wall is being built to prevent contamination of the estuary.

The Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, declared a World Heritage Site in late 1999, is also a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

It contains crocodile and hippo territory in mangrove swamp forests, the world famous scuba diving destination Sodwana Bay, and the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve where sea turtles nest.

In close proximity to St. Lucia is the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, inhabited by elephants, lions, leopards, and buffalo, and the largest population of rhino in the world.