B Explanatory memorandum
by Ms Papadimitriou, rapporteur
1. Current events are a regular reminder of the dangers
that oil spills pose for the environment and marine biodiversity.
In recent years, cases such as the Erika,
the Prestige, the Tricolor and the Ievoli Sun have had a drastic impact
on European public opinion and prompted changes in the law in the
countries concerned to combat the effects of this massive pollution
and prevent further incidents. At the same time, a number of vessels
that sank decades ago have started to leak, polluting the marine
environment and putting pressure on the authorities to act, either
by offloading oil from the wrecks or by removing the wrecks themselves.
These leaks, which may be from the vessel’s cargo or fuel, have
sparked criticism about the insufficient efforts undertaken to avoid
2. The question now, however, is what to do with those sunken
wrecks which have not yet started to leak? These potentially polluting
wrecks are in some cases so old that it is difficult to find a responsible
party capable of paying for their removal.
3. As the number of ageing wrecks grows, it is necessary and
urgent for governments and the oil industry to begin planning together
how best to respond to these potential threats. It is now clear
that a large portion of the oil trapped in these wrecks will start
leaking sooner or later. Some refer to these sunken wrecks, which
pose a risk of explosion and can impede shipping, as “time bombs”.
Such concerns call for a systematic risk assessment process that
takes into consideration the potential for leaks, the possible consequences
of the pollution and the financial cost of oil or wreck removal
and/or the clean-up operation.
2 Overview in figures
4. Information and data on deep-sea wrecks (below 600
metres) are scarce. Such wrecks are not yet systematically monitored
and come under scrutiny only when pollution is found on the surface.
Very few attempts have been made to mitigate these older vessels,
unlike in the case of wrecks that lie in shallower waters or coastal
areas. Consider the example of the Silja tanker,
which in July 1969 sank in under 10 minutes after being hit by a
French cargo vessel. Its wreck now lies at 2 500 metres, 20 nautical
miles off Toulon. There are currently no data that would allow us
to determine the state of corrosion of the vessel or how much oil remains
trapped in its tanks.
5. An inventory of potentially polluting wrecks was, however,
compiled by Environmental Research Consulting (ERC) in 2004; the
International Marine Shipwreck Database identifies some 8 569 potentially polluting
wrecks around the world, including 1 583 tank vessels. The database
covers the period 1890-2004.
6. Some 75% of sunken wrecks date back to the Second World War
and so have been underwater for more than sixty years; their metal
structures are ageing and, under the effect of corrosion, the plates
deteriorate, threatening to release their contents into the ocean.
7. According to these data, the North Atlantic Ocean has 25%
of the world's potentially polluting wrecks and these wrecks are
estimated to contain nearly 38% of the total volume of oil trapped
in sunken vessels. The large numbers of wrecks in the Atlantic reflects
the intensity of the maritime attacks between the German Navy and
the Allied Forces during the Second World War. The Mediterranean,
meanwhile, has 4% of the world’s sunken vessels and around 5% of
the estimated oil volume, numbers that are disproportionate to its
8. Oil is not the only threat to marine biodiversity. The warships
used in the Second World War also carried munitions which, over
the years, have become corroded to the point where they are liable
to start leaking significant quantities of toxic substances. Some
of these toxic substances (such as mercury) are not biodegradable
and can cause chemical contamination of the food chain. Without
a map charting these risks, no accurate assessment of the threat
can be made. One example in this regard is the SS Richard Montgomery, a cargo ship
that sank in the Thames Estuary in 1944 with approximately 1 500
tonnes of explosives on board. Although the wreck is being monitored
by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the danger of an explosion remains.
In the United Kingdom, there is in fact an act of parliament called
“The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973”, which lists dangerous wrecks.
Only two are monitored at present: the SS
Richard Montgomery and the SS Castilian,
which sank in February 1943 off the Welsh coast, with its cargo
9. Also worth mentioning here are shipwrecks involving chemical
tankers such as the Ievoli Sun which
was carrying 6 000 tonnes of chemicals when it sank in 2000, north
of the island of Batz, France. In this particular case, a pumping
and controlled release operation was carried out at a cost of 50
million French francs (approximately €7.5 million), at the expense
of the vessel’s owner.
3 International legal instrument:
the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks (2007)
10. At international level, the need for a common policy
on the treatment and removal of wrecks has long been a topic of
discussion at the International Maritime Organization. For the first
time, the 2007 Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of
Wrecks provides a harmonised legal framework for dealing with the
issue of wrecks.
11. The convention provides States parties with a set of rules
aimed at ensuring the prompt removal of any wrecks that may impede
navigation or pose a threat to the environment and that are located
in States parties’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), Environmental
Protection Zones (EPZs) or on their continental shelf. The EEZ is
situated beyond the territorial waters and extends up to 200 nautical
miles from the baseline. The convention sets out the rights and
obligations of the signatory States and establishes the powers of
coastal States. States parties can elect to extend the application
of the convention to wrecks located within their territory, including
their territorial sea; they are also required to co-operate with
other affected States. Any State which reserves the right to act
must notify the State of the ship’s registry and the State of the
3.1 Financial liability
12. The inclusion in the Nairobi Convention of a financial
security regime is intended to ensure that the owners of sunken
vessels are primarily liable and financially responsible for marking
and removing wrecks that pose a threat to the environment. States
parties may remove wrecks, or have them removed, at the expense of
the vessel owner. The convention in that case requires the owner
of the vessel to meet the cost of locating, marking and removing
the wreck if it constitutes a hazard. States potentially affected
by the presence of polluting wrecks are thus protected from insolvency
because all ships of 300 gross register tonnage or more and flying
the flag of a State party are required to take out insurance to
cover their liability under the convention.
3.2 Entry into force
13. The convention will enter into force twelve months
after 10 States have ratified it. So far, only four countries have
signed the instrument: Estonia, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
Should the convention not come into force, the rights of Council
of Europe member States in respect of shipwrecks will remain uncertain from
a legal standpoint.
The introduction of international rules on the rights
and obligations of owners of polluting wrecks, and hence the adoption
of a harmonised legislative framework, would be an improvement on
the current situation. The treaty in question does not apply to
all wrecks, however. Rights to recover are extinguished if action
is not taken within three years after the hazard is determined but
in no case beyond six years after the casualty that caused the wreck.
Also, nothing in the convention affects the right of the shipowner
to limit its liability under a national law or an international
convention such as the Convention on the Limitation of Liability
for Maritime Claims (LLMC or the London Convention of 1976, as amended).Note
4 Feasibility and cost of wreck
mitigation: can operations be carried out on sunken wrecks?
4.1 Data to be gathered
The risks of leaks and the methods of recovering
oil from a wreck need to be examined. A typical oil removal operation
includes the following phases:
- wreck assessment and leak prevention;
- removal mobilisation;
- oil removal;
- wreck stabilisation (or destruction).
The success of the operation depends to a large extent on
the quality of the information compiled about the wreck. An accurate
risk assessment is vital given the cost of these operations: the
wreck must be studied, the bunkers located, the current measured
and the moorings prepared. Consideration therefore needs to be given
to the following factors:
conditions (currents, winds, type of terrain, etc.): weather conditions
at the wreck site must be taken into consideration for proper planning
and mobilisation, since they directly affect the time window in
which the work may be safely carried out. Tropical storms, winter
winds and seasonal currents can disrupt the engineering work. Heavy
work platforms and powerful tools, such as remotely operated vehicles
(ROVs), can extend the weather window, but will also increase the
cost. Currents, tides and water temperature also impact the selection
of work platforms.
- The location of the wreck: a wreck that is a long way
from the coast will require more time to mobilise and demobilise
personnel and equipment. If the anticipated costs rise because of
the distance of the wreck, simpler, alternative response options
will become more attractive. That might include using support vessels
and divers to carry out smaller and less expensive but longer clean-up
or leak-sealing operations (possibly lasting several months or even
Except in the case of recent shipwrecks, the location phase
is the most difficult to assess in terms of duration. Extending
the search area is always very expensive. During this phase, if
the sea floor is flat, recent innovations in acoustic imaging make
it possible to scan tens of kilometres at a time. Any anomaly can
be examined more closely using a side-scan sonar. If the sea floor
is more uneven, detection becomes a much more complex process. Other
aspects should be taken into consideration:
- the condition of the wreck: the task here is to ascertain
what materials were used to build the vessel in order to determine
the wreck corrosion rate. It should be possible to tell from the
characteristics of the vessel exactly where the tanks are located.
The volume of oil still on board also needs to be estimated and
any leaks clearly located;
- the type of oil: the type, volume and location of oil
on a wreck will vary depending on the type of vessel, its construction,
age, propulsion, trade route, etc. Viscosity also plays an important
part in wreck oil recovery operations. Lighter oils are usually
fairly easy to recover from the bunkers; heavy, viscous oil is more
difficult to handle and poses a greater threat to the environment.
It requires heating to make it pumpable.
18. Operations to remove oil contained in sunken wrecks as cargo
or in bunkers remain the exception. For while there are no technological
barriers to recovering oil from deep-water wrecks, there are decisions
to be made as regards financial liability. The State threatened
by the wreck must be able to recover the cost of the operation from
the owner of the vessel, where the owner is known and capable of
paying. In the case of old wrecks, it would be helpful if States
could turn to an international or European fund.
4.2 Wreck mitigation techniques
The French Centre of Documentation, Research and
Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution (CEDRE) has highlighted
four methods of removing pollutants from sunken wrecks:
situ removal of oil from the wreck: this is the most
common solution in the case of cargo oil; it is also the most manageable
solution from a technical point of view. It does, however, have
the disadvantage of leaving behind a certain amount of residue which
clings to the walls or escapes into other enclosed areas of the
wreck. The amount of residue can be reduced by washing out the cargo
tanks or fuel bunkers with hot water or fluidizers.
- Burial of the wreck and cargo: this method remains somewhat
academic as it has never been put into practice on a completely
submerged wreck. While it may appear fast and inexpensive, the procedure has
the disadvantage of leaving the oil cargo in
situ, with no guarantee that the wreck will be 100% leak-proof.
- Removal of the wreck and cargo: this method enables all
of the oil to be removed and takes less time than offloading the
oil. It cannot be used in the case of damaged wrecks, however, and
if an accident occurs, the risk of a large-scale discharge is significant.
Also, if the site is a graveyard, removing the wreck is liable to
cause anger among the families and/or the public at large.
- Controlled release of the cargo with surface recovery:
in this case, openings are made in the hull using explosives or
cutting tools. The released oil rises to the surface where it is
trapped and pumped. This fast and inexpensive solution is only possible
when conditions are highly favourable to start with (the quantity
of pollutants contained in the bunkers is typically fairly small).
20. Unfortunately, there is as yet no reliable method of measuring
the amount of oil contained in a wreck and very often it is overestimated.
The problem of gauging the tanks aside, however, the task of locating
and identifying wrecks and the operation itself have been facilitated
by technological progress. Remotely operated vehicles are used to
inspect the wreck, determine its position and the size of the breaches
and hence the most appropriate method of dealing with the pollution
21. The Prestige disaster
in 2002, which polluted the coast of Galicia (Spain), showed that
oil can be recovered in very deep water using these remotely controlled
robots. In this particular case, nearly 14 000 tonnes of heavy fuel
oil were recovered at depths of 3 500 metres.
22. Traditional operations involving ROVs in deep water do, however,
require long cables and entail high operating costs. The devices
are often restricted by their mooring systems, especially in challenging environments
(polar regions, for example). With the advent of acoustically and
optically controlled submarine vehicles (which are therefore no
longer connected by cables), tasks will be able to be performed
at less cost and with fewer personnel. The new devices will be better
able to manoeuvre in the chaos that surrounds shipwrecks and represent
a major step forward in the treatment and removal of sunken hazardous
The CEDRE notes, however, that there are still a number of
challenges to be addressed when recovering pollutants from wrecks:
- the problem of viscous oils
that require heating to make them pumpable;
- the structure of the double-hull tankers that may increase
the technical difficulty and risk of recovery operations;
- locating and estimating the volume of oil in the tanks
and other spaces;
- close-out procedures.
4.3 Assessing the costs
There are only limited funds available for hazardous
cargo recovery so it is important that the oil removal efforts be
prioritised according to the likelihood and possible consequences
of oil releases. The cost factors can be divided into four categories:
- equipment, tools and diving operations;
- days required on site;
- reprocessing the oil recovered.
25. In general, oil recovery costs are directly related to the
complexity of the site, not to the volume of oil to be offloaded.
In September 2010, for example, oil was offloaded from the frigate Laplace after fuel residue appeared
in the bay of Fort-La-Latte (Brittany). A former American destroyer
which had been converted into a meteorological ship by the French
Navy, the vessel sank after hitting a German mine in September 1950. Traces
of pollution in 2010 prompted the French Navy to set about removing
90 m3 of oil, namely all the extractable
fuel. Thanks to the shallow depth (about 10 metres), the proximity
of the coast and the small number of personnel involved (35 members
of the French Navy over a period of five days) the work was able to
be completed at a cost of €150 000.
26. The case of the SS Jacob Luckenbach,
on the other hand, shows that the sums involved in such operations
can be considerable. A freighter, the SS
Jacob Luckenbach sank nearly sixty years ago after a collision,
17 nautical miles from San Francisco, in 50 metres of water. The
wreck, which for a time lay forgotten, had been steadily leaking
oil from its cargo holds, killing over 50 000 seabirds between 1990
and 2003. Following a long search for the culprit, the source of
the spills was eventually traced to the wreck, prompting the authorities
to take action in 2002. The cost of the operation soared to US$20
million because of weather-related delays, the fact that the oil
was in several different compartments, the viscosity of the oil
(it had to be heated so that it could be pumped), the coldness of
the water (approximately 5°C), the depth (55 metres), strong currents
and poor visibility. The operation lasted ten months. Since there
was no responsible party, the US$20 million cost was met by the
National Pollution Funds Center. The wreck is now sealed.
5 Assessing the risks of potentially
polluting wrecks: should operations be carried out on sunken wrecks?
27. The decision to salvage oil from a sunken wreck must
be based on a sound risk assessment and a thorough cost-benefit
analysis because any salvage effort is usually expensive, time-consuming
and risky. The cost-benefit analysis should assess the potential
environmental and biological impact of any pollution from the wreck
as well as the socio-economic implications that such a spill might
have for the coastal communities concerned.
Two considerations should be at the forefront of any decision
to remove oil or the wreck itself:
- whether the potential environmental impact and risks posed
by the oil outweigh the cost of the mitigation action;
- whether the combination of environmental risks, economic
damage and social unrest that could be caused by repetitive spills
of oil contained in the sunken vessel outweighs the cost of the
29. The primary difficulty with calculations of this kind is that
evaluating the potential costs in terms of environmental damage
is a complex process. It is easier to estimate the costs entailed
in mounting the operation (cost of technologies, wages) than the
costs associated with non-commercial losses (environmental integrity,
protection of the landscape and coast, etc.).
5.1 Environmental risks associated
with oil spills
Oil spills have an adverse impact on marine biodiversity
and direct effects on the socio-economic balance of the affected
region. The impacts of oil spills are as follows:
- physical and chemical alteration
and even destruction of natural habitats, both short and long term;
- degradation of the ecosystem through smothering effects
on the marine environment;
- lethal toxic effects on fish, plants and the aquatic environment
as a whole;
- biological changes in marine animals (studies show that
oil affects the immune system, fertility and metabolism of certain
species); short- and long-term interruptions in the food chain;
- tainting of fish products, making them unfit for consumption.
Risks for human health;
- damage to image in the case of tourist sites;
- sizeable economic losses for the fishing industry, temporary
lay-offs and job losses. Fishing and the fishing industry account
for over 400 000 jobs in Europe (European Union figures);
- fouling of boats and ports;
- temporary interruption of any marine-based industries.
In assessing the risk posed by a particular wreck, the following
information needs to be assembled:
- description of the environment immediately adjacent to
- modelling of the possible oil release scenarios and oil
impact zones using oceanographic and meteorological data. This modelling
should include the possible spill trajectory of the discharged oil
and should also incorporate fluctuations of currents and tides;
- wreck location, orientation and distance to nearest coastline
and sensitive habitats;
- information on the cargo types and their location including
presence/absence of munitions and/or explosives;
- type of debris around the wreck site that may interfere
with offloading operations or pose a safety hazard;
- description of the regional environment likely to be affected
by a release of oil from the sunken wreck, including assessment
of the risks to wildlife, habitats and marine and coastal resources
within the region;
- description and assessment of the potential socio-economic
impact of oil spills.
32. Assessing the environmental threat posed by sunken wrecks
is no easy task. Each shipwreck is unique and needs to be handled
on a case-by-case basis. One potentially useful option here would
be to adopt European guidelines on the removal of wrecks that would
take account of the various factors mentioned above in order to
determine when a wreck should be removed.
5.2 Underwater graves
33. Most of the Second World War vessels that now lie
at the bottom of the sea are also underwater graves for lost military
personnel and civilians. These ships are not without owners and
are often treated in the same way as military cemeteries on land.
Removing such wrecks can be equivalent to grave robbing in the eyes
of the military and their governments. Under no circumstances should
the recovery of a wreck and the human remains on board take place
without the specific and written consent of the country concerned.
34. It is necessary to preserve these wreck sites for their historical
and cultural importance as well as for their status as war graves.
When dealing with leakage, they should be therefore treated delicately.
Multilateral agreements between governments need to be developed
to control access to wreck sites, share confidential information
and seize recovered artefacts in order to restrict the commercial
exploitation of sites.
35. There are a number of such underwater graves. A notable example
was the HMS Royal Oak, which
was torpedoed and sank off the Orkneys in 1939 with all 833 men
on board. The first battleship lost by the British in the Second
World War, the vessel was carrying 3 400 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.
Resting in 27 metres of water, HMS Royal
Oak had been steadily leaking oil since its sinking.
Aided by corrosion, the seepage grew to 1.5 tonnes per week and
began to pose a threat to the local environment. There was considerable
concern for the salmon and oyster fisheries, as well as the seals,
sperm whales, otters and seabirds, and in 2004 it was decided that
action must be taken. Because of the large number of casualties
during the sinking, HMS Royal Oak remains
one of Britain’s largest war graves and, for this reason, the Ministry
of Defence and the local community were reluctant to disturb the
site. Only overriding imperatives of marine or environmental safety
can justify moving war graves. In view of the risk posed, it was
accordingly decided to drill directly into the wreck so that the
oil could be pumped to the surface and stored. The operation cost
several million pounds.
6 New shipping routes and future
36. There are indications that new shipping routes will
open up in the Arctic and also intensify in the Mediterranean, both
having extremely fragile and vulnerable marine ecosystems. An increasing
amount of sea traffic is already beginning to move to the Northern
Sea Route along the Siberian coast in the summertime, cutting the
shipping distance between Europe, China and South-East Asia by a
third. In 2007, Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest ever level,
opening for the first time the North-West Passage above Canada and
37. This perspective opens up new economic opportunities and cuts
fuel costs and carbon emissions, but it also raises important concerns
about safety and pollution from oil and other toxic substance spills.
A study commissioned by the Finnish Government in 2011 underlines
that combating oil spills in icy water is almost impossible with
current technology. Moreover, ships operating in or near the Arctic
use advanced diesel engines that release black carbon into one of
the most sensitive regions for climate change.
38. In the Mediterranean Sea, overall shipping activity has been
rising steadily over the past ten years, bringing it among the world’s
busiest waterways that accounts for 15% of global shipping activity. Approximately
18% of global seaborne crude oil shipments currently take place
within or through the Mediterranean. With the discovery of new oil
and gas reserves in the Mediterranean Basin, shipping trends indicate
further increase of traffic by 18% over the next ten-year period,
while transits are expected to rise by 23%. Increase in traffic
will be coupled with deployment of larger vessels, namely chemical
tankers and container vessels calling in at the Mediterranean ports,
and larger product and crude tankers for transit.
Furthermore, there is strong concern over the illegal disposal
of toxic and radioactive waste transported on old vessels that have
been deliberately sunk in the Mediterranean. In this respect, the
rapporteur refers to the research carried out by World Wide Fund
for Nature (WWF), Italy, and the environmental NGO Legambiente and
to the report of Ms Angela Napoli, rapporteur on the issue for the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean.Note
Taking the above into consideration, the committee
proposes the following recommendations to be considered by the Assembly
in its resolution addressed to the member States of the Council
- sign and ratify
the 2007 Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks
for all Council of Europe member States concerned;
- create a European database on wrecks, their location,
cargo and pollution potential. This could be done in co-ordination
with national maritime pollution bodies or within the framework
of the Regional Sea Conventions – Convention for the Protection
of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (“OSPAR Convention”)
(1992, entered into force on 25 March 1998); Convention for the
Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the
Mediterranean (“Barcelona Convention”) (1976, amended in 1995);
Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic
Sea Area (“Helsinki Convention”) (1974, revised in 1992);
- carry out systematic assessments of wrecks to identify
any that pose a threat to the environment. This information would
need to be regularly updated (in particular data on corrosion rates).
Better information about the wrecks located along Europe’s coastlines
could help to account for certain leaks that are sometimes wrongly
attributed to illegal dumping of cargo. Time and resources are often
wasted in the search for culprits (as in the case of the SS Jacob Luckenbach in the United
- support research in order to improve:
- our ability to predict rates
of corrosion and degradation of sunken wrecks for different conditions (water
temperature, currents, etc.);
- knowledge of the physical properties of oil in deep water,
cold water and high-pressure seawater environments;
- the technology of remotely operated underwater vehicles
to reduce the cost of identifying and locating wrecks, as well as
the cost of oil and/or wreck removal;
- consider setting up a European fund for old wrecks whose
owners are neither available nor solvent. Such a fund could be used
to meet the cost of investigating and treating wrecks that pose
a threat to the environment.