When things go wrong with scrubbers

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

13 February 2018


Scrubbers have been developed as a means of meeting the SOx regulations be they the existing SECA limits or the impending 2020 global cap. While they are acceptable under IMO and other national regulations they do have one vulnerability that alternative fuels do not have.

As a mechanical device, scrubbers are not immune from breakdown or failure of components. Although that has not so far been a problem for any of the vessels fitted with a scrubber it is something that has to be considered. Any vessel that is using fuels with a sulphur content above the permitted 0.5% after 2020 and without any alternative on board is in danger of breaching the regulations if the scrubber breaks down.

This is a situation that has been foreseen by the scrubber makers industry association, the Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems Association (EGCSA) which has taken legal advice on the consequences. The key advice that EGCSA has received is that ship operators should be open and advise flag and coastal/port state without delay of the issue and remedial action that is being taken.

EGCSA says that under most circumstances the ship would not be considered as being in immediate breach of the regulations because non-compliance would be unintentional and the provisions of regulation 3.1.2 of MARPOL Annex VI would apply. If there is any compliant fuel on board then that should be used and the ship allowed to complete the current leg of its voyage without deviation and then carry out repair works or bunker compliant fuel.

In the event that only a limited quantity of compliant fuel is on board then it may be prudent to reserve sufficient for use in SECAs or port approaches and burn the non-compliant fuel in the open sea. That at least would demonstrate that the operator and crew are respecting the most stringent control areas.

It is possible that the system itself is functioning but the continuous emissions monitoring system (CEMS) has suffered a malfunction that would prevent the ship from proving compliance. In such circumstances, flag and port state should be informed and the CEMS should be fixed soonest and preferably before or at the next port). However, again the ship should not be considered as being in immediate breach of regulations.

The systems operating parameters and operation can be recorded using the system’s data logging function and used to demonstrate that exhaust gas cleaning was being carried out even if the effectiveness could not be demonstrated. In essence the EGCSA advice is complete honesty and openness with all parties if there is a problem which they expect most flag and port state officials would treat in much the same way as any other equipment breakdown.

One thing that should be avoided at all costs is to cover up the breakdown and to continue sailing without undertaking repairs. To do that would most likely expose the owner to legal action with the potential for heavy penalties in some jurisdictions – as has been demonstrated in the many magic pipe incidents prosecuted in the US.

Image for illustration purposes only: Nicro