Red Sea bomb ship begins to be defused. But the risk remains – 07/22/2023

After eight years of apprehensions and anguish, the time bomb in the form of a decrepit ship crammed with oil anchored off the coast of Yemen, in the Red Sea, which threatened to leak or explode at any moment, which would cause an unprecedented environmental disaster in the planet’s seas, finally began to be deactivated – although the risk persists.

This week, a large empty oil tanker, purchased by the UN, arrived in the region of the port of Hodeida, on the coast of Yemen, for a mission as unlikely as it is unprecedented: to remove all the oil that is crammed into the 34 tanks of the decaying former oil tanker FSO Safer, which has been stationary there for 47 years, and which, in 2015, was kidnapped by rebels of the Houthis ethnic group, who are fighting against the government of Yemen, and take its place.

But what could seem like the final solution to the problem of the bomb ship, which, since it was captured by the Hutis, has plagued the region with the permanent risk of its hull rupture or its flammable contents exploding, will only be a palliative: after receiving the transferred oil, the new ship will only take the place of the previous one, remaining in the hands of the rebels — who have always used the ship full of crude oil to pressure and blackmail the Yemeni government.

More than 1 million barrels of oil on board

Image: UNDP

The purpose of the new tanker, which, like the previous one, will be transformed into a kind of hostage by the rebels — and used to continue putting pressure on the current government of the country — will only be to replace the old ship, which is no longer able to continue floating, much less with a threatening 1.14 million barrels of oil on board — a bomb about to explode, or — even worse — crack and leak all its contents into the sea.

If that happened, the leak could generate the biggest maritime environmental disaster in history, because the tanks of the FSO Safer, which are 362 meters long and, at the time it was built, in 1976, were the largest of its kind in the world, contain four times more oil than there was in the reservoirs of the supertanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground, cracked and flooded the coast of Alaska with oil, in 1989 – considered the worst maritime environmental tragedy to date.

Even so, the risk is not over yet. On the contrary, it may just be getting started.

Because transferring so much oil from one vessel to another is a complex, delicate and dangerous operation.

“It just hasn’t exploded yet luckily”

Image: UN

“There is no alternative”, explains Ghiwa Nakat, Executive Director of Greenpeace, an organization that for years has been monitoring the state of decomposition of the tanker from a distance, since the rebels never allowed it to be inspected by technicians.

“Although the operation has risks, they are smaller than doing nothing”, says the environmental activist. And he completes:

“It’s just pure luck that nothing has happened so far. But if nothing was done, it would happen for sure.”

Operation will take two months

Strictly speaking, the risks during the oil removal operation, which began yesterday and should last for about two months, are the same as those that have always afflicted the old ship, permanently anchored near the port of Hodeida: leakage or explosion – this one, caused by the difference in pressure between the tanks.

“The difference is that the risks will only exist during the operation, whereas, if nothing were done, it would be permanent, and would inevitably result in a more than announced disaster”, explains the Greenpeace representative.

There is no deadline for it to be emptied

After the transfer of oil, there is no deadline for the new ship to leave the rebels’ possession, and finally be unloaded — because that depends, practically. the end of the civil war in Yemen
But the hope is that the simple fact that the Hutis (who have always been against any foreign intervention in the matter) have agreed to the operation, signals a possibility of political negotiation for the conflict, which has lasted since 2015 – the same year in which the ship was seized.

UN negotiations with the Hutis, asking for authorization to replace the ship (an operation that will cost the United Nations around R$700 million, including the removal and demolition of the oil tanker to be replaced), began last year, but only advanced at the end of last May, when the rebels finally authorized the exchange of the FSO Safer for the oil tanker Náutica, which was even renamed Yemen, in honor of the agreement.

How did the problem start

HDM PUMP SHIP - PHOTO 3 Google Earth - Google Earth - Google Earth
Image: Google Earth

The problem began almost a decade ago, when the Huthis took over parts of Yemen, including the port of Hodeida, opposite which the confiscated ship, which had been converted by the Yemeni government into a tanker, to store oil for the country, stood.

It would not be a big problem, were it not for the fact that, from then on, the maintenance of the ship ceased to be carried out, which caused it to deteriorate rapidly.

Lately, in addition to the rust that has taken over the entire hull and threatens to split it in half (according to technicians who inspected the ship, the thickness of the steel plates in certain parts has been reduced to millimeters, due to marine corrosion), the main risk is the pumps responsible for eliminating the gases generated in the oil-filled reservoirs, which stopped working in 2017 and have never been repaired.

During the removal operation, this still poses a high risk of explosion. But there is no other option.

“The SFO Safer is still a bomb,” says the Greenpeace representative. “But now, at least, we have begun to disarm it.”

another bomb ship

Meanwhile, far off the Yemeni coast, another ship bomb has been robbing the English of peace for nearly 80 years.

Since, in 1944, the former American freighter SS Richard Montgomery sank at the mouth of the River Thames, with more than 9,000 explosives that would be used in the fighting of the Second World War, the British government does not know what to do with the wreckage of the ship, which is still on the surface, since the bombs are still inside it.

HDM PUMP SHIP - PHOTO 4 Wikipedia - Reproduction/WikiCommons - Reproduction/WikiCommons
Image: Playback/WikiCommons

The most recent attempt by the British government to rid the region’s residents of the permanent risk of the old ship exploding (since many bombs may still be active) should have taken place last month, but had to be suspended after technicians detected explosives scattered around the submerged wreckage.

With that, a thesis gained even more strength among the English that, at first, may not make much sense — but which, perhaps, is really the best way out: that the best thing to do, in this case, is to do nothing.

As can be seen by clicking here.

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