Rush to stop decaying tanker from spilling a million barrels of oil into the sea

A delicate and expensive operation to remove 1.1 million barrels of oil from a decaying ship and avoid an environmental catastrophe has begun. A crew aboard a Dutch company-operated salvage vessel, the Ndeavor, reached the FSO Safer on Tuesday.

The moment was hailed as “proud” and a “critical step” in the mission spearheaded by the United Nations.

The crew will now need to balance speed and carefulness while transferring the barrels from the supertanker to another boat, the Nautica.

The decaying supertanker is moored in the Red Sea, north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah, and there is the risk it could explode or break apart, causing untold environmental damage.

To pay for this ambitious and necessary process, the UN has so far raised £92million ($114m) through donations made by members states, private companies and the general public.

But an additional £23.26m ($29m) is still urgently needed, the UN said, to cover the costs of safely mooring the Nautica to an anchored loading buoy and later towing it to a recycling yard.

While these operations are expensive, the funds required are not comparable to the billions an ecological disaster would cost the international community.

After applauding the arrival of the Ndeavor to the supertanker, UN Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner said: “Aside from a possible humanitarian and environmental catastrophe, funds spent now will prevent a disaster that could cost billions in the future.”

The Safer holds four times the amount of oil spilt by the Exxon Valdez during the 1989 disaster caused after the supertanker ran aground on Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef.

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The spillage damaged more than 1,250 miles of coastline and is believed to have killed thousands of animals – including seabirds, sea otters and orcas.

A similar disaster in the Red Sea caused by the Safer would destroy coral reefs and mangroves among other sea life, devastate fishing communities, expose millions of people to highly polluted air and disrupt passage of goods through the Suez Canal, the UN said.

The Safer was built in 1976 by the Hitachi Zosen Corporation in Japan and was originally named Esso Japan.

In 1987, it was converted into an unpropelled storage vessel renamed Safer, and the following year it was moored off the Yemeni coast under the ownership of the country’s government.

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The structural integrity of the ship started to significantly deteriorate from 2015, when maintenance operations were suspended.

Months prior, the Houthis seized large parts of Yemen, a move challenged by a Saudi-led coalition which intervened in support of the Yemeni government.

The war that followed and the resulting famine have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

A UN Development Programme report into the conflict released in 2021 found that in the war-torn country, a Yemeni child under the age of five died “every nine minutes” due to the war as well as hunger and disease.

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