High Profile Vessel Casualties Ignite ‘Place of Refuge’ Call to Action

The MSC Flaminia on fire in the North Atlantic in 2012.
The MSC Flaminia on fire in the North Atlantic in 2012.

Shipowners, Salvors and Insurers represented by at least three trade associations are jointly calling for the implementation of international measures to provide a Place of Refuge for stricken vessels following a series of high-profile incidents where casualty vessels have been delayed or denied in accessing a safe harbor.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) says that it has noted “with dismay” the refusal by some coastal States to make places of refuge available, risking lives and the environment in the process. In particular, the ICS referenced recent incidents such as the Stolt Valor and MSC Flaminia fires in 2012 and the more recent plight of the Maritime Maisie chemical tanker which is currently being held at sea by six tugs after a collision and fire on December 29, 2013. The vessel has been seeking a place of refuge in either the Republic of Korea or Japan for more than a month.

The three trade associations -including the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI), the International Salvage Union, (ISU) and ICS- have all recognized that the issue of Places of Refuge for casualty vessels is sensitive and that the risk of pollution from casualties cannot be completely removed. In addition, it is also recognized that handling casualty vessels can carry political implications and risk to coastal communities.

At the same time, however, the associations say that the failure to offer a suitable Place of Refuge may prevent successful salvage intervention and therefore allow a casualty’s condition to worsen and ultimately lead to pollution that might otherwise have been prevented.

“Guidance on the handling of requests for places of refuge was agreed at IMO but often when a case arises the coastal states concerned take a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude,” said Peter Hinchliffe, ICS Secretary General. “This is in marked contrast to attitudes to aircraft in need of assistance. This current case shows that recent lessons have simply not been learned.”

Commenting on the matter, President of the ISU, Leendert Muller said: “Our members are right on the front line of this issue. Too often they are unable to follow the best course of action which is to take the casualty into shelter, which does not necessarily have to be a port. We have seen infamous cases like Castor and Prestige and more recently the MSC Flaminia and Stolt Valor and now the Maritime Maisie where our members, attending damaged vessels, experienced great difficulty in finding an authority willing to accept the casualty.”

Ole Wikborg, President of the IUMI, points out: “The potential impact of environmental damage has to be reduced as much as possible and the safety of crews is paramount and we have to minimize material damage to ships and equipment. Coastal states must be able to make the best possible decision to prevent further damage following a maritime accident. Some countries have a system that seems to be functioning. IUMI is of the strong opinion that the prevailing regulations as set out, for example, by IMO and the EU are sufficient but that the necessary steps have to be taken to make the rules work.”

ISU, ICS and IUMI all note the international legal context for the issue and the significant relevant legislation that is in place internationally and regionally, in particular, IMO Resolution A.949, “Guidelines on Places of Refuge for ships in need of assistance”; Resolution A.950 (23) (recommending all coastal States to establish a Maritime Assistance Service) and the 1989 Salvage Convention as well as the European Union vessel traffic monitoring and information system (Directive 2002/59/EC as amended by Directive 2009/17/EC) which prevents member States from issuing an outright refusal to provide a place of refuge and states that safety of human life and the environment are of over-riding concern.

The industry bodies say they do not see merit in pursuing additional international legislation as it will be a lengthy process and will consume resources. Instead they will campaign for better application of, compliance with and enforcement of existing rules and guidance. ISU has already formally presented views on Places of Refuge to EU member states through the EU Commission; the issue will be raised in IMO fora this year and there will be direct engagement with the governments of individual coastal states.

In short, coastal states should be encouraged to recognize that granting a Place of Refuge to a casualty vessel may be the most appropriate course. States should establish an authority to assess each case on its merits without political interference. Such an assessment must include a visual inspection and conclude with recommendations for managing and mitigating the risk of any impact on local coastlines and communities. The assumption should be that a Place of Refuge will be granted if needed and that there should be “no rejection without inspection”.

IUMI, ICS and ISU would like to see wider adoption by coastal states of simple, robust, “single point” command and control models.