What is bilge dumping and why has it gone unnoticed?

What is bilge dumping?
Bilge dumping is an illegal practice where cargo vessels and tankers release bilge water into the ocean. Bilge water is present in most modern vessels fueled by heavy oil. This toxic liquid is thick, oily sludge and extremely hazardous to marine life. Bilge tanks are located in “the lowest compartments of the ship” where the waste is transferred. In order to operate the ship, bilge water is produced and directed into the tank. On a sanitary and ecologically-sensitive vessel, the bilge tank is emptied and filtered offshore regularly. Large vessels providing goods via global shipping routes, however, can go weeks with nowhere to adequately dispose of the waste. The easiest solution – release it into the ocean. A whistleblower claims, “It is definitely the norm. A lot of the rules are violated and it’s just how it is.”

Why does bilge dumping happen?
SkyTruth states, “Bilge dumping has remained hidden for decades because it typically occurs far out at sea.” Due to the inconvenience of having to retain oil waste for days on cargo vessels, ship members all too often dispose of the waste in the ocean despite the enormous ecological and marine impacts. According to SkyTruth, an estimated 52.8 million gallons of oil waste is released into the marine environment annually. That’s 5 times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. If ExxonMobil were responsible for 5 oil spills every year, near-insurmountable legal consequences and extensive environmental fines would be in order. Yet, because of the discrete practices taken place by thousands of vessels in the middle of the ocean, very few are ever caught.

The environmental destruction:
Much like oil spills, bilge dumping leaks extremely toxic oil waste into the surrounding marine ecosystem, threatening the health of birds, fish, whales, coral etc. Bilge water also contains numerous harmful chemicals and heavy metals; the marine victims of bilge dumping almost always die. As for the fish or birds that survive, future offspring likely die well before birth. In 2005, Canadian environmental officials estimated around “a minimum of 300,000 seabirds are killed every year in Atlantic Canada waters as a result of ship operators illegally dumping bilge oil.”
Data for 2022 could not be found, however, with the escalation in consumeristic lifestyle and greater shipping fleet numbers, how grim would those figures be?

Along with environmental damage, food sources like fish pose threats to human health due – in large part – to bilge dumping. Research investigating the effects of the Huntington Beach, California, oil spill demonstrated the long-term effects of ocean contamination and the human safety consequences. “In the summer after the slick, oil levels along the miles of affected coastline were found to be 100 times higher than background levels. But eight years on, levels in the sediments in the surrounding marshland were still 10 times higher than prior to the accident.” The disposal of oily waste, deliberate or not, has colossal long-term effects as seen with oil spills and bilge dumping. The National Library of Medicine suggests fish consumption can introduce the presence of toxic metals into the diet; metals such as “lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury.”

On the 26th of August 2013, the Caribbean Princess cruise ship owned by Princess Cruises illegally dumped “4,227 gallons of oil-contaminated waste about 20 miles off the coast of England” according to The Guardian. It’s estimated the company was set to pay $57.6 million AUD ($40 million USD). The parent company, Carnival, was also forced to submit 78 cruise ships across the 8 owned companies “to a five-year environmental compliance programme.” These rightfully deserved penalties are being flagged to all within the ocean tourism industry – notorious for bilge dumping practices.

The health implications:
The International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research – Volume 6 – highlighted the huge and likely implications of bilge dumping on public health. Researchers released a questionnaire to Nigerian people regarding their increasingly-polluted waterways. Of the participants, 84.7% claimed marine pollution had/has a negative effect on the local economy, and more importantly, the health of the people. The journal presented a list of polluting practices; one of which was “Oily-water discharge from ships.”
The bilge water discharged can introduce foreign bacteria, viruses, pathogens and parasites into local communities. The oil waste disposed of unethically near residential neighbourhoods generates “airborne toxins that leave people complaining of symptoms like headaches and nausea and worrying about long-term problems like cancer.”

The heavy metals present in bilge water, as mentioned previously, rarely evaporate into the air, and are instead absorbed into nearby soil. Heavy metals like mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium can lead to nervous system failures. For example, inadvertent contact with heavy metals from food sources can leave pregnant women and children incredibly sick. Children can experience a delay in physical and cognitive development, delayed walking and talking, shortened attention span, vision impairment, memory loss, numbness in toes and fingers, unstable blood pressure and learning disabilities. As well as the possible development of heart disease, “mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness.”

Whether far out at sea or near disadvantaged, low socio-economic communities, the deliberate disposal of bilge waste into the ocean and waterways is a testimony to the capitalist “profit” economy – going so far as to even impair human health.

Where is bilge dumping most frequent?
SkyTruth claims that bilge dumping is most common throughout Southeast Asia. In 2019, data collected from the organisation tracking oil pollution, found the region had the largest amount of bilge dumping by far. The effects of bilge dumping are becoming increasingly problematic. Eco Business states, “thick clumps of oily sludge covering beaches, smothering coral reefs, and ruining fishermen’s gear.” Unfortunately, little is being done to stop the disposal of bilge waste; in Indonesia, clumps of oil waste littered along the coastlines are daily occurrences. However, the director of a luxury resort on the Nikoi island and Cempedak has implemented a tracking system to detect upcoming ships, which immediately sends an email to the ship “letting them know they are being watched.”

Who is monitoring bilge waste?
There are, however, oceanic environmental watchdog organisations trying to stop or record bilge dumping activity from above. The most well-known organisation is SkyTruth, a not-for-profit that uses satellite imagery and remote sensory data to monitor the activity of vessels out at sea. Every year, SkyTruth releases its data and imagery onto the internet, to hold governments and the shipping industry accountable. The CEO and founder, John Amos, states, “we regularly see these dark streaks on the water that were not natural, that often had a big ship, a vessel at the end of the slick.”
SkyTruth also uses AIS (Automatic Identification System) – a procedure internationally recognised whereby all ships must transmit a radio signal to satellites so ships can avoid a collision. Utilising both satellite imagery and AIS, SkyTruth can recognise where an oil slick is and the ship responsible based on the most recent AIS broadcast. John Amos claims that annually, 1,500 likely bilge dumps occur in European waters alone. To make matters worse, these are “conservative estimates.”

Another organisation that monitors bilge disposal, among other marine issues, is the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) established by the UN (United Nations) in 1948, Geneva. According to the IMO, its main purpose is to ensure “safe, secure, environmentally sound, efficient and sustainable shipping through cooperation.” The IMO says that 77.5 million litres of bilge water are generated annually in Canadian waters alone.

Bilge dumping isn’t like plastic pollution, overfishing or oil drilling. The implications, however, are startlingly similar. The most concerning issue regarding bilge dumping is not the destruction it causes, but the lack of recognition by governments and public awareness. Until governments acknowledge and society realises the damage done by shipping, cruise lines and every aspect of marine transport, bilge dumping will continue to impair the most crucial ecosystems on earth, and damage the health of local communities. It’s up to us, the masses, to wake up and address this issue – now.

Released on the 10th of June 2022. -KJDJ
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