The recent spate of mechanical failures attributed to poor quality bunkers have resulted in excessive wear, blocking and damage to ships’ fuel systems. It is not known exactly how many vessels have been affected since the issue first surfaced in January 2018, but the number is estimated to be in the hundreds.
Why is the problem so complex?
It is chiefly for three reasons:
What do we know about the contaminants?
USCG is the only authority to have released information on this issue so far, and both it and INTERTANKO have highlighted that compounds which normally do not form part of the marine fuel refining process have been detected in the bunkers when using advanced or more rigorous testing. These compounds include phenolic compounds, fatty acids, benzoic acids, cyclohexane diol isomers and dehydroabietic acid and other sticky compounds of an unknown nature. The presence of these or similar compounds in the bunkers is a breach of Cl.5 of ISO 8217 and Reg.18.3 of MARPOL Annex VI.
Some of the possible preventive actions owners and operators can take are:
When mechanical failures occur due to contaminated bunkers legal issues will arise either under a charterparty and/or the bunker supply contract.
Under time charterparties the starting point for both owners and charterers is what has been detailed in the bunker specifications clause. Owners might consider seeking cooperation of the charterer to do additional testing of the bunkers prior to consumption and if found to be contaminated, offloading them at the time and expense of the charterers. If the off-spec bunkers have been consumed, then detailed evidence will be needed from the owners to prove that the damage and/or loss resulted from the consumption of the off-spec bunkers.
Under voyage charterparties, the charterer will not be involved in any way in the supply of bunkers and this will be an owner’s matter to resolve under the bunker supply contract and the removal of the off spec bunkers from the vessel, if needed.
Bunker supply contract
Owners of voyage chartered vessels and time charterers should check which jurisdiction clause governs the bunker contract. Owners should also be aware of the time bar, which can be relatively short in such contracts. It would also be highly advisable that suppliers are requested to do additional testing of the bunkers being supplied, however, should the supplier refuse then buyers should reserve their position vis a vis the time bar in the contract.