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Rotting Tanker Threatens Environmental Crisis off Yemen in the Red Sea

Cargo of 1.1 million barrels of crude could spill at any time

An imminent environmental crisis that could affect some 25 million citizens if and when a rotting, floating tank spills its contents into the Red Sea off of Yemen was the subject of a session of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.

The tank became disabled in May 2018, when seawater seeped into the engine room. Although its owner, SAFER Exploration & Production Operations Company, made initial repairs, the water created a situation in which the 1.1 million barrels of light crude oil became at risk of leaking into the Red Sea. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told UNSC that the potential included health issues due to contamination and higher fuel prices for Yemen, which is already stressed from civil war and existing humanitarian crises. It would also heavily damage a large part of the Red Sea and the Yemeni coasts.

The session occurred three days after Ansar Allah group [the Iranian-backed Houthis that drove the internationally-recognized government (IRG) of President Hadi into exile and took control of key ports] allowed a UN technical team to board the floating tank located near Ras Essa port in Al-Hudaydah governorate.

The warring parties in Yemen reached an agreement on Friday which, according to the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Oil and Minerals in Ansar Allah’s government, entailed giving the UN approval to access the tank and evaluate the damage as a first step and then to set a schedule to empty the tank and perform maintenance on it. The 1,140,000 barrels of light crude oil would be distributed. The Houthis have suggested that revenues from the oil distribution be used to pay the salaries of the civilian and military public sector employees.

A man-made disaster:

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Wednesday that the leakage from the floating tank will destroy marine life along the coast of the Red Sea and stressed that the Houthis prevented UN officials from providing the necessary solutions to avoid the looming disaster.

Engineer Mohmmed Sallam of the Ministry of Oil and Minerals told The Media Line that, “The floating tank started to erode noticeably about four years ago due to the salty water of the sea and [no] performance of the annual maintenance on the tank. If this continues any further, the tank will start to leak large amounts of oil into the Red Sea”. Engineer Sallam estimated the more than 140 million liters of oil would spill into the sea, recommending that the tank must be emptied immediately and maintenance must be performed on the main tank and the external sub-tanks first and ending by performing maintenance on the internal sub-tanks.

Mohammed Mokhtari, a former engineer with the SAFER company and a member of the floating tank’s technical team, told The Media Line that, “even if a simple leak ever happened it could turn into an environmental disaster affecting the Yemeni coasts and any country close to the Red Sea.” He noted that other factors such as water salinity, humidity and climate temperature all expedite the tank’s disintegration.

Rashad Al-Sabri, an environmental observer, spoke to The Media Line about the tank and what will happen if it started to leak. “If the content of the floating tank seeped [into the sea], its damages could affect marine life which could create difficulties for more than 50 thousand fishermen who practice fishing in the affected ocean”.

“The ecological system in the area is in danger right now, this danger could reach the neighboring states” added Al-Sabri.

Al-Sabri concluded by saying that if the environmental disaster does happen it could lead to the closure of Al-Hudaydah port which could in turn cause a food crisis in the country.

On the possible leak’s environmental damage, Lowcock warned that the floating tank is storing 1.1 million barrels of oil and if it spilled into the sea it will be four times as bad as the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred 31- years ago.

Who is responsible

Previously, the Houthis had questioned the credibility and seriousness of the UN’s promise to send technical teams to perform maintenance and damage evaluation on the floating tank.

Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, an Ansar Allah official, posted a tweet on July 15 blaming the damage of the floating tank’s boilers on the member states of the Saudi-led coalition providing military support for the IRG forces. Al-Houti showed a document he claimed proves that the coalition prevented the entry of a ship carrying fuel oil in 2016 saying, “The coalition prevented the entry of tanker RAMA1 which was carrying mazut used to operate the floating tank’s boilers”.

Mohammed Al-Houthi held the coalition responsible for the disaster adding that “the coalition deals with everything with a military mentality without considering any other factors, SAFER’s tank is a good example of this.”

The floating tank

According to Adel Mulhi, an administrative employee in Safer company’s Public Relations Department who spoke to The Media Line, “The floating tank is a large oil tanker with a static weight of 409 thousand metric tons. It receives oil from several oil fields through a pipeline that reaches 438 kilometers in length. The tank is able to load other ships with crude oil for the purposes of exporting oil.”

“The crude oil in the tank is worth more than 70 million dollars” concluded Mulhi.

The floating tank is a terminal for storing oil extracted from block 18 in Marib governorate and is carried out though the Marib oil pipeline to Ras Essa. SAFER company manages international oil exports. The tank is located 4.8 nautical miles from the shore of Ras Essa and is 360 meters long and 70 meters wide.

Mulhi added that this is the third largest tank of its kind in the world for storing and exporting oil and that work on the tank stopped due to the war and employees were evacuated due to fear of military action.

Rashad Al-Sabri, an environmental observer, told The Media Line about the tank and what will happen if it started to leak. “If the content of the floating tank seeped [into the sea], its damages could affect marine life which could create difficulties for more than 50 thousand fishermen who practice fishing in the affected ocean.”