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. This ‘bilge water’ is present in most modern vessels fueled by heavy oil. These toxic liquids are thick, oily sludge – 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 has to be 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 for 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, companies and members of ships all too often dispose of the waste in the ocean despite the enormous ecological and marine impacts of such practice. According to SkyTruth, an estimated 52.8 million gallons of oil waste is released into the marine environment annually. 5 times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill! If ExxonMobil were the culprit of 5 oil spills every year, the company would be faced with near-insurmountable legal consequences and extensive environmental fines. 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 thousands 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”. Between both the escalation in consumeristic lifestyle and, at least according to the UN, continued increases in shipping fleet numbers, how grim would 2022 figures be?

Along with environmental damage, food sources like fish pose threats to human health because of 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 diets. 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 tough and rightfully deserved penalties are being flagged with other cruise organisations across the globe, as a warning to ocean tourism – notorious for bilge dumping practices.

The health implications:
The ‘International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research‘ – volume 6 – released in September 2015, highlighted the huge and likely implications of bilge dumping on public health. Researchers released a questionnaire to Nigerian people regarding the 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”. In the journal, “Sources of Marine Pollution from Ships” presented a list of polluting practices including “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 – instead they are absorbed into the nearby soil. Heavy metals like “mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium” can lead to nervous system failures. The inadvertent contact with heavy metals from food sources, for example, 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” can occur.

Whilst bilge dumping and other waste disposals may often be present in remote ocean locations, it’s clear that many global communities face the issue right in front of their eyes.

Where is bilge dumping most frequent?
SkyTruth suggests 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”.
A world where people have to waste their own time implementing tracking system technologies, suggests just how little has changed in our approach to the environment.

The oceanic police force:
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 [because of satellite imagery] these dark streaks on the water that were not natural, that often had a big ship, a vessel at the end of the slick”.
Furthermore, SkyTruth uses AIS (Automatic Identification System) – a procedure internationally recognised whereby all ships must transmit a radio signal to satellites so ships can avoid 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 in a single year, 1,500 likely bilge dumps occurred 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 is generated annually in Canadian waters alone.

Bilge dumping isn’t anything like plastic pollution, overfishing or oil drilling. The implications, however, are remarkably 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 destroy the most crucial ecosystem on earth, and adversely affect the health of local communities in places like Nigeria. It is in our best interests, that we as a global community, stamp out bilge dumping practices through locating, monitoring and reporting those who have little regard for both the marine environment and human health.

Released on the 10th of June 2022. -KJDJ
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