It is still not known what was the source of a sequence of cases involving contaminated bunker fuel being loaded on ships in the US Gulf ports, Panama and Singapore, according to the International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA), which said that a hundred vessels appeared to have been affected and that the issue had been going on for some time.
IBIA said that a significant number of ships had experienced serious operational problems – chiefly sticking/seizing fuel pumps and in some cases filter blockages – after lifting bunker fuels from the US Gulf region since late March and during April/May.
Most cases had reportedly been caused by intermediate fuel oils (IFOs) bunkered in the Houston area, though there were indications that similar problems had been caused by fuels bunkered in Panama.
On July 27th Meadway Shipping and Trading Singapore filed a lawsuit against sub-charter Integrity Bulk ApS in the US District Court in Maryland after a ship it had sub-chartered loaded bunker fuel in Balboa, Panama and subsequently developed engine problems. Meadway says the fuel was tested in a laboratory and found to have higher than normal levels of phenol, which have acidic content and can damage lubrication surfaces.
“Phenols also reduce the stability of the fuel. Presence of phenols also indicates the possible use of shale oil as cutter stock. Shale oil reduces the ignition and combustion properties of the fuel,” Meadway’s complaint said, asserting that the company had suffered damages exceeding US$2.1m, including as much as $500,000 from damage to the vessel, engine and system.
Stephen Simms of Simms Showers in Baltimore, Meadway’s attorney said that the action was “the start of a lot of litigation about bad bunkers”.
In late July Reuters reported that Singapore-based marine fuel testing company Maritec Pte Ltd had found six samples of fuel sold in Singapore that had resulted in severe sludging at centrifuges and clogged pipelines which overwhelmed fuel filters. It said that the test results of the Singapore samples seemed to point to both Estonian-type oil shale and US-type fracked shale oil as possible sources.
IBIA said that it was not clear that all of the reported cases shared the same root cause and not all testing companies and experts were offering the same view as to the root cause.
Simms was concerned that fuel quality could become an even bigger issue as 2020 approached and the new lower sulphur cap comes into force.
Most large ships burn residual fuel with high levels of sulphur. As refineries ramp up production of lower sulphur fuel, “there will be the need to take the residual fuel and then, for a lack of a better word, cut it with acceptable compounds to reduce the sulphur content to the 0.5% limit,” claimed Simms.