Pollution caused by Mediterranean collision almost completely recovered

CSL Virginia. Credit: French Navy
CSL Virginia. Credit: French Navy

The French authorities estimate that they have succeeded in recovering all but 2% of the fuel oil that spilled into the Mediterranean last week following the spectacular collision between a Tunisian ro-ro vessel and a Cyprus Shipping Lines box ship.

After what it described as a “remarkable feat” on the part of French and Italian anti-pollution vessels, the maritime prefecture in the French city of Toulon said that the amount of fuel oil not yet recovered represented less than the volume of an average commercial van.

An estimated 600 m³ of intermediate fuel oil was released into the sea after COTUNAV vessel Ulysse ran into the anchored CSL Virginia off the island of Corsica on Sunday, 7 October, causing a large breach in the side the latter vessel and rupturing its fuel tanks.

With the prow of Ulysse lodged deep inside the Cyprus-flagged box ship, the two vessels remained locked together for several days, finally separating without assistance in the evening of 11 October.

In the meantime, more than 12 French and Italian vessels, essentially salvage tugs and specialised naval and other anti-pollution vessels, have been involved in efforts to contain the pollution and recover the lost fuel oil.

The prefecture said on the evening of 14 October that it had recovered 1,000 m³ of fuel oil mixed with seawater and estimated that a further 30% of the spilled fuel had either evaporated or been absorbed by the environment.

Of the small amount of pollution remaining, the prefecture said it had largely been transformed into small globules the size of a golf ball. These were difficult to detect, the prefecture said, and were spread out over a large area more than 30 km from the coast.

The recovery operation is nevertheless continuing but using a different method. Instead of the containment booms and pumping apparatus used until now, the ships on site will trawl for the emulsified globules using “socks” able to filter the oil globules from the seawater.

After freeing itself from CSL Virginia on 11 October, Ulysse was authorised by the French authorities to return to the Tunisian port of Radès under its own power.

According to a local press report, three members of its crew were arrested by police on the vessel’s arrival at the port on the evening of 14 October and were due to be questioned on 15 October. It was not clear, however, whether their arrests were connected with the collision, for which the Ulysse was widely blamed, or for a video released by crew members while the vessel was still locked to CSL Virginia.

In the video, the crew members insisted that they were in good spirits despite the “little problem” they had encountered. They attacked those who had criticised Ulysse, saying that what had happened could have happened to any vessel at sea and praised the vessel’s master, saying he was “the best in the world” and that he belonged to “best shipping company”.

French environment minister François de Rugy, who said last week that it was clear that there had been no watch in operation aboard Ulysse at the time of the accident, responded that he was “ashamed” for the crew members concerned, who he said had shown “embarrassing stupidity”.

He added that the investigation being carried out by the French gendarmerie would find out who had been responsible for what had happened.

CSL Virginia, meanwhile, is still at the place where it was anchored waiting for new orders at the time of the collision.

The maritime prefecture told IHS Markit that the vessel was not in any immediate danger despite the damage it had sustained. Its structure remained solid and a containment barrage had been put in place around it to prevent further pollution. It is also being attended by support vessels brought in by its owner.

A prefecture official told IHS Markit that the French authorities were now waiting for its owner to present credible proposals for repairing and removing it without causing further pollution.