Dockside fuel test puts captain and Carnival in the dock

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton
ShipInsight

17 October 2018


A cruise ship captain was accused in a magistrate’s court in Marseille last Monday (8 October) of violating the EU Sulphur Directive during a port call in the city in March. The prosecution is calling for a fine of €100,000, to be shared between the captain and Carnival Corp, ultimate owner of the ship involved in the case, with the company paying 80%.

It could have been worse: at an initial hearing in July, reports said that the potential fine was twice as much, with the captain – an American, Evans Hoyt – facing a year in jail.

His problems began on 28 March when inspectors sampled bunker fuel on his ship, P&O Cruises’ Azura. At 115,055gt, it is the third-largest in the operator’s seven-ship fleet. When the results were confirmed a few days later, they showed a sulphur content of 1.68% and the captain received a visit during a subsequent port call. The figure exceeds the 1.5% limit set in the directive for “passenger ships operating on regular services to and from Union ports.”

Capt Hoyt did not deny using the fuel – the ship’s previous bunker call was in Barcelona, where its records showed that 1.75% sulphur fuel had been loaded – so his defence was based on two points: that the directive is inconsistent and, in any case, does not apply to the ship.

Defence lawyer Bertrand Coste argued that the directive does not place a similar sulphur restriction on cargo ships operating in the Mediterranean, saying that there should be “equality before the law”. In addition, he told the court that Azura does not provide “regular services to and from Union ports”, and is thus not covered by the directive.

One press report quoted prosecutor Franck Laugier responding to these arguments, saying that the charges were justified and accusing the defence team of “pulling out the stops so that the captain of the Azura escapes his responsibilities.” A decision is expected from the court on 26 November.

In a statement to ShipInsight, Carnival UK’s public relations director Michele Andjel added another factor that she believes will sway the court: “We believe we and our captain were acting in accordance with applicable French law based on guidance the cruise industry received from the French Environment Ministry,” she said. With this high value card in Carnival’s hand, she is “confident that the court will fully exonerate us.”

She was not able to provide any further detail about that guidance and ShipInsight is seeking clarification elsewhere to understand when and how it was issued to “the cruise industry” and will update this item when more details are available.

This is the first time such a case has been brought in France and some observers view this as an attempt to flag up concerns about pollution from cruise ships. For example, one website that has reported on the trial is www.equaltimes.org, which describes its mission as focusing on “labour, human rights, culture, development, the environment, politics and the economy from a social justice perspective.” It described the prosecution as “a strong symbolic stand against air pollution, taken by the Public Prosecutor of the French Republic.”

If the prosecution has been motivated by a desire to take “a symbolic stand” then Marseille is a good place to do it. A study published in the French newspaper L’Express in April ranked the country’s towns in order of their air quality and placed Marseille as the third worst, behind two other locations in southern France – Avignon and Nice – although it is road traffic, not shipping, that is blamed for their positions.

But two years ago, a similar study by the environmental group Robin des Bois placed Marseille at the top of its poll so it has seen some improvement over that period and the port encourages its users to be environment-friendly.

Since July last year, Marseille Fos Port Authority has been a signatory to the Environmental Ship Index scheme set up by the World Port Climate Initiative and in June this year it recognised the efforts made by ten shipping companies that have “the most virtuous and most respectful records in terms of air quality.” The list consisted of two cruise operators –MSC and the Carnival-owned Costa Cruises – along with eight container ship operators.

In April this year – less than three weeks after the fateful inspection on Azura – the Costa Group and the port authority signed a partnership agreement that included a joint commitment to protect the environment. It included a commitment to “enhanced control of exhaust emissions through concerted action, notably in terms of deploying advanced exhaust gas cleaning systems and LNG propulsion in which the Costa Group is investing heavily,” a statement at the time said.

Even if Carnival and Capt Hoyt win their case, it seems inevitable that policies will be reviewed at P&O Cruises. However the Sulphur Directive should be interpreted and whatever the guidance from the ministry means, for Carnival to have one group company winning plaudits for its environmental standards at a port while another is, literally, in the dock elsewhere in the same city cannot be tenable.