by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Last week Forbes contributor Nishan Degnarain, continued his penetrating coverage of the Wakashio oil spill by questioning statements made by the IMO’s top adviser, Matthew Sommerville, in Mauritius. Today video emerged of a town meeting where Sommerville provides advice to local authorities. Advice which one maritime expert calls “utterly ridiculous”.
In the August 23rd video Forbes published, Matthew Sommerville said “There is lots of offers of equipment from overseas, there are lots of offers of expertise from many nations which want to help. But we don’t want to overload the country [Mauritius]…”
Degnarain writes that he finds this statement odd to make “This is an odd statement to make in a country that previously had a prominent, female biodiversity scientist as President, Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, and who has been calling out for greater international support in particular areas of biodiversity protection for the past few weeks.”
According to Forbes, this includes technology companies – like blkSAIL,. Windward, and Geollect – who can analyze satellite data remotely and autonomous oil monitoring vessels – like Saildrone and blkSAIL – which require few operators.
“Some of the latest oil spill detection technologies had been offered to Mauritius for the past 43 days”, says Degnarain. “Yet there has still been no response from the Mauritian authorities… Questions are now being asked whether it is the International Maritime Organization (IMO) who is preventing this technology from being deployed in Mauritius.”
That was last week. This week a new video has emerged where Sommerville makes numerous eye-opening statements like “We are working with the shipowner to get boots on the ground but they are reluctant.” And, addresses serious health concerns by saying “Everyone is worried about VOCs (for health reasons) but they still go to their petrol station and fill up.” And, in a statement where he claims to have been handling oil with his bare hands “for thirty years,” he boasts “If someone was going to get cancer it would be me.”
Who is Matt Sommerville?
Matt Sommerville is Chairman of The Insititute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology’s (IMarEST) Marine Pollution Special Interest Group and secretary of the International Spill Control Organization (ISCO) and industry non-profit based in London. According to ISCO’s website that organization has “consultative status at IMO” and “through involvement in IMO, ISCO alerts the spill response community on new developments, some of which present opportunities for ISCO members.”
So why is Sommerville claiming to speak for the IMO and UN?
We don’t have that answer.
We do know that the video claims he is a “UN Expert” and the “Claim & Private Sector Coordinator” for the oil spill.
Why Is He Leading This Recovery
Summerville does not mention under who’s authority at the IMO he is working but he does repeatedly claim that the owner of the M/V Wakashio is the person responsible for cleanup efforts.
But why isn’t a shipowner or P&I Club representative on hand to answer questions? According to Sommerville there aren’t many owner or P&I representatives in Mauritius right now but they are working to get them here.
This is highly concerning. As is usually the case in high profile incidents, local authorities have arrested the Captain but, as is also the case, no warrants have been issued to the ship owner or crewing managers.
This is important because incident theory tells us that groundings are not singular events, they occur at the end of a series of problems over many years. And, more often than not, those problems are systemic and almost always include poor ownership and management decisions.
If the shipowner refuses to send representatives to Mauritius then they could have issued warrants and enacted extradition treaties against management before arresting the crew.
The Ridiculous Advice
The following are some highlights of the town hall video which our shipping expert – who has extensive experience working with the IMO, and wishes to remain anonymous – claims contain statements that are “ridiculous”.
*Our meetings are long and complicated. In a country that hasn’t had many oil spills, it’s going to get complicated. We have French Law, British Law mixed together, that’s always a ‘good’ combination. Then you have national law and international conventions.*
While explicitly innocuous this statement sends a clear implicit message: trust us, you’ll need our help.
“If a ship spills bunker oil, they have to pay. You don’t have to go to court to find out what happened.*
“It’s nice and clear the OWNER pays.*
“It (total compensation) for this comes out to around $17 million.
“So it’s not a huge pot.
“If this had been a tanker, there would be more money, but it’s not, it’s a bulk carrier.”
Sorry, Sommerville but you do need to go to court to find out what happened AND to find out who is responsible. While he is right that the owner has significant financial responsibility for the clean up a thorough investigation hearing often identifies other responsible parties as well.
Also “not a tanker” was the Deepwater Horizon in which a US Federal Judge ordered BP, Anadarko, TransOcean and Halliburton to pay $20.8 Billion. Only one of those companies owned the ship.
That’s an extreme case in which bunkers did not play a significant role but, also in the “not a tanker” category is the Cosco Busan which spilled bunkers in San Francisco Bay. In that case, Regal Stone, the ship’s owner, and Fleet Management, as a manager, reached a $44.4 million civil settlement in September 2011, after several lawsuits from federal and state government agencies. Fleet was fined $10 million for falsifying the ship’s records after the crash. Many other parties were sued including two retail pharmacies that filled prescriptions for drugs that ‘degraded the ship pilot’s cognitive performance’.
While these incidents both happened in US waters and were prosecuted by some of the best attorneys in the world, why should the people of Mauritius expect a fraction of that compensation in court? Especially considering that Mauritius has one of the best-educated populations in the world. Why should their complaints be focused solely on the shipowner?
“The Owner pays, that’s what the international convention says. Because you will hear of other people involved. You get technical mangers, crewing managers, the caterer, you get the bank. But the conventions make it very straight. It’s the OWNER WHO PAYS with the P&I Club “
Ok is it complicated as you purported in the opening remarks? Or is this simple and straight forward?
And again, it’s rarely the case that the owner and P&I club who pay alone.
The government has been talking with them (owner and P&I) and we’ve given advice to the Mauritius government about what they should be talking about. And they are looking about how to put the whole structure together and also what court is going to handle it…:”
Are they getting any impartial advice?
“Bees, what is the oil impact of Bees, living two hundred miles away. So you have to hire a bee oil spill expert”
Ok, are any Bee’s in trouble because of this spill? What else is in danger? Have these experts been contacted and mobilized?
“Compensation is based on pure economic loss. There is no price for a mangrove. For a hundred mangroves (lost) a day, there is no value to that. What there is a money value to is the restoration of that. If someone needs to plant mangroves, yes. If someone needs to monitor mangroves, yes. But the model is pure economic loss.”
The model is pure economic loss. Loss of perceived value of the property. You can’t put a number on it with a theoretical model. It’s actual loss.”
Mangroves do have value and to say otherwise is insensitive. And while mangroves can’t sue someone in court there could be cases of pain and suffering and damage to the food chain which do require “theoretical models” to compute compensation.
Of course, to sue for that type of compensation you first have to know your rights to file such a claim but, according to this ‘expert’ you don’t have that right.
“There is advice in there (IOPC Fund Manual) for the government to make the claims process go more quickly.”
“You will find there is a very long claims form. MY FAULT. But every time we had an incident someone invented a new one.”
Throughout this video there are multiple dichotomies at work. “It’s simple” follows a discussion of international complexities. “Go more quickly” is followed by a story about making the bureaucratic process more difficult. A general theme seems that obstacles are put to slow down individual claimants (e.g. every gatherer in Korea was subject to a hand inspection for calluses) while the government is encouraged to move faster. This is a major red flag.
“A big factor for you is COVID. Tourism was already depressed by COVID restrictions so tourisms claims are expected to be lower but the marketing (of tourism) part of that claim might still be significant.”
You see, here is where those economic models that Sommerville dismissed would be of use to a good lawyer. A good lawyer would be able to ask for a settlement based on historical records and future predictions.
What Sommerville repeatedly suggests that settlements, which come with waivers of rights, will help fast track the process… And while he repeatedly suggests that taking settlements to court is a much slower process… he misses other options.
One option is for a bank or government to provide a settlement loan for partial short term payment to victims while the case goes through courts.
A second option is for the case to proceed to court but the parties reach a settlement before final judgment. In this case, the final agreement is based on what both sides agree to. If both sides agree to compensate hotel owners for amounts higher than pandemic revenue levels, then that’s the compensation they will receive.
“There are going to be people around from the shipowner and P&I club to help put claims together.
Why isn’t the shipowner in Mauritius now? Sources close to the spill tell gCaptain that the owner, Nagashiki Shipping. has two people on the island but they have been “maintaining a low profile”.
“The government is trying to get ‘those samples’ and move fairly quickly.
Why weren’t samples taken before the ship was partially scuttled? Or were they? It’s been well over a month since the incident, taking samples is a simple process that should have been done on day one.
Wrong Advice About Cancer
The most questionable advice of the day, however, came in the Q&A session after Sommerville’s speech. When a participant asked about the risk of Mauritians getting cancer “in three years” he responded as follows:
On human health, there have been no proven claims. Most people who have health issues following a spill will report symptoms like loss of appetite, inability to sleep, fatigue. These all come down to a simple thing called stress.
“A lot of people are worried about inhaling VOCs but they still go to their petrol station and fill up. In this incident the Volatile Organic Compounds went very quickly, in the first 2-3 days they are gone. We are getting reports from people who go to a mangrove area and smell something, well you go to a mangrove area and it’s an anaerobic soil. You touch and disturb the soil you will smell something. Sulfur and rotting vegetation that’s part of the mangroves.”
We don’t know why an IMO UN Representative would comment on issues of health without consulting a doctor but the link between cancer and oil spills has been well documented. Mauritius has a lab and a small but highly educated cluster of biotech experts who, via an official government report, have warned residents not to eat certain fish which now contain “cancer-causing PAH chemicals”.
But the most troubling statement at all was this:
If someone was going to get cancer from oil it would be ME. With this spill every day I’ve been here I’ve had oil on my hands. And I’ve been doing spills for thirty years.
I don’t even know how to respond to this?
Sorry IMO, but you need to send a team of real maritime experts to Mauritius ASAP. You need to call member organizations and ask them to send their best (e.g. the NTSB) and you need to send Summerville a one-way ticket home.
ISCO Executive Committee member John McMurtrie has provided the following clarification about his organization’s relationship with the IMO:
Your articles should have made it clear that Mr Sommerville was hired by the IMO through his consultancy not through his ISCO connections. He took leave from his ISCO duties while deployed by the IMO and provided no reports or had communications with the ISCO executive or committee members while employed by the IMO; as is proper.
As the only organisation representing the international spill response industry, ISCO has Consultative Status at IMO and Observer Status at IOPC Funds. ISCO representatives regularly attend meetings of these organisations. We introduce new initiatives at IMO and give our support to other delegates advancing developments that will be of benefit for improvement of response effectiveness. We also provide technical input in regard to spill response within IMO and other working groups