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‘Bad bunkers’ – common challenges, recommended actions

Saturday, 17 November 2018 | 00:00

Instances of damage to vessels’ machinery, including engine breakdowns, as a result of contaminated fuel have reached unprecedented levels. Since the first reports of this ‘bad bunker’ fuel appeared in Houston at the beginning of 2018, it is thought that hundreds of ships have been affected globally. Norwegian Hull Club has – as of October 2018 – received some 30 reports of incidents arising from bunkers in Singapore, the US, Colombo and Panama. Eighty per cent of these cases occurred on the US Gulf Coast.


The consequences of this fuel-oil epidemic are potentially catastrophic, threatening life, the environment and assets alike. As was highlighted in discussions at a recent gathering of Norwegian Hull Club’s Loss Prevention Committee (LPC), location can mean everything when the effects of bad-bunker fuel strike. When a ship suddenly finds itself with no engine power in a busy shipping lane and / or in extreme weather, the potential ramifications for the crew and other vessels in the vicinity could be life threatening. Norwegian Hull Club has had to arrange the towing of several vessels that experienced loss of propulsion due to bad bunkers.
The issue is not helped by the fact that there is disagreement on what actually constitutes contaminated fuel: when legislation points to fuel that is ‘free from any material at a concentration that causes the fuel to be unacceptable for use’ (ISO8217 2017, 5.2), how is such a concentration determined? Are owners merely left to ‘roll the dice’ at the time of sampling?

Large-scale problem

The challenge with the bad-bunker phenomenon is worsened by several factors – not just the existence of such unfit-for-purpose fuel.
The issue is global – Singapore, Houston and Panama are the most high-profile hotspots at present – making it somewhat tough to predict. This also means that, when cases do arise, they are falling within different authorities and jurisdictions.


Furthermore, the cause for the current spike in bad-bunker occurrences remains unknown. The LPC meeting – which was held in September – heard from Nick Chell, Shipping Technical Director at LOC. In a presentation entitled ‘The Impact and Consequences of Bad Bunkers’, Mr Chell said that he believed that refinery processes are most likely the underlying cause as these facilities often produce a wide variety of fuel components, increasing the likelihood of contamination. In addition, transport vessels such as bunker barges are sometimes used for carrying other products. This means that, if the tanks are not cleaned out properly, contamination can occur. For example, tall oil – a by-product of the timber industry – has reportedly been found in some contaminated fuel.

The Independent Association of Independent Tank Owners (Intertanko), meanwhile, has pointed towards fuel oil cutter stocks – used to reduce viscosity and bring a fuel ‘on spec’ – which can contain the contaminant 4-Cumyl-Phenol. The US Coast Guard stated in a Marine Safety Alert on June 8 of this year that this contaminant, which is used in industrial applications due to its adhesive qualities, could result in ‘engine failures and associated losses of propulsion potentially having catastrophic and wide-ranging consequences’.
Added to this, testing is not straight forward: standard tests will not necessarily detect contaminants at a level that contravenes the current fuel specification – ISO8217 2017 Clause 5.2. In the same safety alert, the US Coast Guard said that contaminated fuel oil “may increase sediment levels at separators and fuel filters and, in some cases, may completely clog filters”. The alert then adds: “The standard fuel oil test methods found in the ISO8217 specification will not detect these underlying problems.”


However, there are also fundamental challenges in what constitutes contaminated fuel – at what point does the level of contaminant constitute an unacceptable risk?

The current international fuel specification – ISO8217 – originated in 1987 from previous standards designed to combat the increasing problem of deteriorating fuel quality. With several revisions having been introduced since (2017 is the latest), this in itself can be problematic. For example, in his LPC presentation, Mr Chell said that a charter party may refer to one edition (often the 2005 or 2010 standard) while the fuel purchase contract can refer to another. Between the 2005 and 2010 editions, one of the main differences is in the aluminum and silicon content. Mr Chell told the LPC that “This can make a difference between the claim between the owner and the charterer and the charterer and the supplier.”

Looking to the future, and the mandatory introduction of low-sulphur 0.5 per cent fuels in 2020, it was pointed out that further revision to the 2017 edition is likely. According to a recent article published by the world’s largest shipping organisation, Bimco, a ‘spike in demand for new low sulphur blends from 1 January 2020 will greatly increase the risk of contamination’ as ‘blending will increase significantly’. The industry’s general concern regarding Low Sulphur Heavy Fuel Oil (LSHFO) – based on Norwegian Hull Club’s attendance at SIBCON, the world’s largest bunkering conference – is stability and incompatibility.

Is it the fuel – or is it something else?

What also needs to be considered is whether any breakdown or excessive wear that is experienced is the result of contaminated bunker fuel (outside the ISO standard) or the consequence of insufficient routines for handling fuel oils and/or maintenance on board.

For example, damage as a consequence of ‘catfines’ (aluminium and silicon – al+si) – highly abrasive particles which can rapidly and seriously wear piston rings, fuel pumps and embed themselves in cylinder liners – could be due to bunkering off-spec fuel with a high content of catfines that owners may be unaware of, poor sampling routines or by accumulating al+si over time which enters the engines due to insufficient fuel management routines. In the worst cases, engines can be worn down in days or weeks. If such a scenario occurs, obtaining and retaining evidence is crucial if an owner is to prove that the cause of the damage is the result of contaminated fuel (see recommended action list below).

Establish a routine

Although it is important to stress that the majority of bunkers are used without any problems occurring, Norwegian Hull Club advises operators to establish a process for selecting a bunker supplier; it should definitely not be a decision based on price alone.

As part of Norwegian Hull Club’s commitment to improving best practice through knowledge sharing, we recommend:

1. Ordering fuel that is suitable for your specific vessel;
2. Protecting your interests with a good contract;
3. Using reputable suppliers with a known track record of deliveries. Have they been involved in any recent bad-bunker cases, are they delivering fuels within the ISO standard as ordered? Do they have a Quality System and, if so, is it according an ISO standard?
4. Getting to know what barging company / barge(s) that will be involved in the delivery – how much control does the supplier have over this vessel? Has the bunker barge been involved in any fuel disputes / off-spec deliveries?
5. Avoiding mixing fuels, in particular prior to fuel analysis availability;
6. Ensuring proper fuel sampling during each bunkering, at point of custody transfer (but preferably ship’s manifold), where a few litres should be considered representative for potentially thousands of metric tons of bunkered fuel.
• Sampling at the bunker manifold, through continuous dripping into a clean, collapsible pouch, distributed into new sampling bottles, properly labelled and sealed. This should be witnessed and signed off by the supplier.
7. Never accepting a supplier’s sample if you feel uncertain that it is a true representative sample of the bunkered fuel;
8. Sending one sampling bottle for fuel analysis without undue delay; observe the parameters of the analysis and any possible recommendations carefully. Avoid using the fuel before fuel analysis is received;
9. Ensuring that your fuel-treatment plant on board is well maintained and capable of handling the fuel;
10. If you are aware of the fuel being off-spec or if an incident occurs, you must:
• Immediately notify all relevant parties (in case there are any time-bar clauses)
• Obtain and retain evidence. This may be crucial in proving the cause of the breakdown in a suspected bad-bunker case, and that it is
not down to insufficient fuel handling routines and maintenance
11. Although costly, consider extended fuel testing. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) testing is an option that is being used by some owners. However, even that may not detect all contaminants of a marine fuel; if you do not know what contaminant to look for, your laboratory may not be able to detect it.

Norwegian Hull Club’s Loss Prevention Convention convenes twice a year to share experience in loss prevention work and discuss issues of safety. It brings together senior technical and marine managers from The Club’s members who possess the necessary experience and knowledge to grapple with complex industry issues.

Source: Norwegian Hull Club

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