Unusual Behavior by Tankers Near Brazil Oil Spill

The source of the massive oil spill affecting Brazil remains unclear, but unusual tanker activity raises questions.

For months now, oil has been washing up on the beaches of northeast Brazil. The quantity of oil, the large area affected, and the length of time oil has appeared, have generated international news coverage and concern.  Government officials, scientists and non-governmental organizations around the world — including SkyTruth — have been trying to identify the source of the pollution; so far, unsuccessfully. Brazilian researchers have identified a likely location for the origin of the spill based on ocean currents. The oil is a heavy consistency that floats below the surface of the water and Brazilian researchers and government officials have claimed that it is likely from Venezuela, although they haven’t published the chemical analysis data to support this.

Heavy oil has been sullying the beaches of northeastern Brazil since early September. The cause remains elusive. [Photo courtesy tvBrasil via Creative Commons license]

At SkyTruth we have been examining available satellite imagery and evaluating some of the theories put forward on the origin of the spill. We haven’t seen any convincing evidence of oil slicks or sources on the images, and we don’t agree with analyses published by others (here and here) that claim to have solved the mystery. I recently decided to take a look at AIS (Automatic Identification System) ship-tracking data in the region that Brazilian researchers identified to be the likely origin of the spill. When I examined the AIS data, I found some unusual behavior by oil tankers passing through the area. 

AIS is a system in which vessels at sea transmit their location at regular intervals via VHF radio. Initially designed for collision avoidance, this location data is also picked up by satellites and provides a global record of vessel movements. I was aided by Global Fishing Watch’s automated modeling of AIS tracks, developed by data scientist Nate Miller, which identifies loitering events, that is, locations where vessels have essentially come to a stop, and are drifting out at sea. Tankers and cargo ships normally maintain a relatively constant transit speed as they are moving from their point of origin to their destination port. Ships may stop out at sea for a number of reasons, including engine problems, waiting for entry authorization at a port, or even at-sea transfers of cargo or refueling. But spending more than 24 hours adrift at sea represents a financial loss for a tanker and would suggest unusual circumstances.

Of hundreds of tankers that moved through the area in the months before the oil was reported, a handful stood out for having lengthy loitering events near the likely area of origin for the spill. One particular tanker, rather than proceeding directly on a course from Spain to Argentina, stopped for two extended periods (each for approximately 14 hours) just within Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone (the EEZ area extends up to 200 nautical miles from shore). The tanker I identified with these unusual loitering events is The Amigo, a 133-meter vessel listed as an Asphalt/Bitumen tanker and flagged to the Marshall Islands. 

Tanker loitering events (yellow circles) detected by Global Fishing Watch analytical tools on the coast of northeast Brazil in July and August 2019 (filtered to events longer than 8 hours). Five loitering events near the area thought to be the likely origin of the spill are shown as larger circles and listed in the table below. The AIS track of tanker The Amigo is shown in red. The EEZ boundary marking Brazil’s waters is in green.

We checked for satellite imagery in the area where the vessel was drifting (July 24 – 26) and unfortunately didn’t turn anything up. So any possible association between this tanker and the oil spill is purely speculative. However,  some of the circumstances of the vessel’s operation fit with theories on the source of the spill so we think its activities should be scrutinized further.

The Amigo is an unusual tanker in that it is outfitted to maintain its cargo at high temperature to keep it from solidifying. When the tanker passed through Brazilian waters off Brazil’s northeast coast, it was en route from Cadiz, Spain to a port near Buenos Aires, Argentina. The loitering events occurred between July 24 and July 26 before the vessel proceeded to Argentina. Port records show that on August 10 the vessel delivered 14,000 tons of bitumen (or at least it was scheduled to offload that quantity of product). AIS confirms that the tanker reached dock in Campana, Argentina on August 10. 

The tanker was coming from Cadiz, Spain though we don’t know if the asphalt was actually from Spain or what quantity was loaded at the port facility in Cadiz. Earlier this year the vessel visited Venezuelan ports and imported Venezuelan asphalt to the US. This article from March mentions The Amigo in the context of US sanctions against Venezuela that were coming into force. Could The Amigo have been carrying a cargo of asphalt that originated in Venezuela?

Movements of The Amigo since January 2019. The tanker’s current location in Turkey is shown.

The terms asphalt and bitumen appear to be used interchangeably to describe a semi-solid form of petroleum. High heat tankers like The Amigo must maintain their cargo at an elevated temperature so that it does not solidify, and can be pumped out of the vessel. Problems with heating might result in product remaining in one of the ship’s tanks and needing to be flushed out. Even under normal operations, heavy oil residue can build up in the cargo tanks and needs to be washed out or removed to free up usable space. International law requires that this be done in port where the oily sludge can be treated, but many ports lack the necessary treatment facilities. If somehow asphalt did end up being discharged directly into the ocean it would be expected to drift below the surface in warm equatorial waters. This might not generate a large surface oil slick that could be seen on satellite images, possibly explaining our frustration here at SkyTruth. 

As mentioned, there are some legitimate reasons for a tanker to be drifting out at sea. But we think it is fair to pose some further questions about this vessel given the severity of the spill in Brazil. What prompted the vessel to halt its normal transit off Brazil? What was the origin of the asphalt carried by the vessel and what quantities were loaded and offloaded? Could the chemical properties of the oil found on Brazilian beaches match this cargo, or any oily residue remaining in The Amigo’s cargo tanks?

But it’s not just The Amigo that’s raising questions for us. We’ve detected loitering events by other tankers in recent months (as shown on the map above and in the table below). We’ve found evidence of likely bilge-dumping by a few vessels in the area. And we’ve noticed that more than a dozen tankers operating in this area turn their AIS off while at sea, apparently in violation of international maritime safety law.

Table showing the five tanker loitering events detected near the likely source of origin of the Brazil oil spill, shown as large yellow circles on the map at top.

We hope to find out answers to some of these questions soon, and we will continue to investigate all available data that might help to identify the origin of this devastating oil spill. One problem is very clear: we don’t know everything we need to know about the tanker activity near Brazil, and in many other parts of the ocean. 

Bilge Dumping off the Coast of Brazil

The cause of the massive oil spill plaguing Brazil’s beaches is still unknown, but monitoring reveals a potential new bilge dumping incident

We still haven’t found the cause of the massive oil spill that’s been plaguing Brazil’s beaches since early September.  

But SkyTruth’s continued surveillance of the coast of northeastern Brazil, in response to one of the country’s worst oil-related environmental disasters ever, has uncovered what appears to be another previously unreported bilge dumping incident off the coast of Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba. Located about 20 km offshore, a 25 km-long slick appears to originate from the Grajau, a Brazil-flagged liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanker. Slicks such as this are a hallmark of the intentional dumping of untreated, oily bilge wastes from vessels underway at sea, although there may be other explanations for this slick (for example, the ship was experiencing a serious mechanical problem). The slick (a long, dark streak) and vessel (a bright spot at the south end of the slick) are shown on this Sentinel-1 radar satellite image taken on the 19th of July. We identified the vessel using their public AIS tracking broadcasts, extracted from the ShipView vessel-tracking platform. The image was captured at 07:53 UTC; a careful look at the AIS broadcasts from Grajau just before and after the image was taken show that the vessel we can see on the radar image is very likely Grajau.

Recent discoveries of bilge dumping in the Atlantic Ocean along Brazil’s coast reveal that this is a persistent problem that — as in many places — lacks effective enforcement. None of the slicks we’ve seen appear big enough to be the source of the oil plaguing Brazil’s beaches. This potential bilge slick from Grajau is no exception: it’s a modest-sized slick compared with the dozens of bilge slicks we’ve seen from other places around the world that are occasionally more than 100 km long. And this slick, just 20 km offshore, probably would have dissipated or washed ashore several weeks before the thick globs of heavy oil began to appear on the beaches in early September.

Nevertheless, bilge dumping is a chronic source of oil pollution in the ocean that has been hidden for too long. Now that we can see it, and can identify the likely polluters, it’s time for governments to take action to bring this illegal practice to an end.

AIS ship-tracking broadcasts (red dots) from the Brazil-flagged LPG tanker Grajau, overlain on a Sentinel-1 radar satellite image showing an apparent bilge-dumping slick (dark streak) and the vessel that appears to be responsible (bright spot, indicated within the red circle). Based on the AIS data, we think this vessel is likely the Grajau. See inset map at upper right for detail. Image was collected at 07:53 on July 19.

The location of the boat, relative to Brazil’s coastline.

More oil pollution in southeast Asia: suspected bilge dumping off Indonesia and The Philippines

[This analysis of oil pollution in the waters of southeast Asia was written as part of a collaborative effort between SkyTruth team members Lucy Meyer and Brendan Jarrell.]

Our routine monitoring of the world’s oceans has led to some extraordinary findings. For example, in previous updates, we’ve identified oil slicks in traffic-heavy locations like the Strait of Malacca. But as you’ll see in this post, bilge dumps occur elsewhere in southeast Asia. 

Those who follow our posts are probably familiar with how we identify vessels at sea. To new readers, let us explain what bilge dumping is and how we identify potentially responsible vessels. Bilge dumping is the disposal of waste water from a ship’s lower hull. Bilge water is supposed to be treated before it’s discharged, but sometimes vessel operators will bypass the pollution control equipment and flush oily, untreated bilge into the ocean – in direct violation of marine pollution law. We use images from satellites to monitor for illegal bilge dumping. In satellite imagery, oily bilge dumps usually form distinctive linear slicks. By matching the time of the imagery to broadcasts from a vessel tracking service called automatic identification system (AIS), we can determine the identity of vessels that appear to be causing the slicks. We used this process to identify the vessel associated with a long bilge slick in Figure 1 below.

 

Figure 1: A vessel shown passing through the Sunda Strait, identified as the Sungai Gerong, apparently trailing a long oily bilge slick.

 

This Sentinel-1 radar satellite image from July 2nd shows a slick about 177 kilometers long around the southwest tip of Banten Province, Island of Java, Indonesia (Figure 1). In the yellow box, you can see a vessel at the head of the slick. By investigating AIS broadcasts from exactEarth’s ShipView service, we identified an Indonesian oil products tanker named the Sungai Gerong as the likely vessel. The satellite scene, captured at 22:33 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), shows a slick that closely aligns to the AIS broadcasts from the Sungai Gerong.

You’ll probably notice that the tail-end of the slick is a bit contorted and offset from the track of the Sungai Gerong. The slick’s appearance was likely influenced by ocean currents and local weather conditions between the time of the ship’s passing and when the image was taken. Global wind maps show that there were 10-15 knot winds blowing northwest up to six hours before the image was acquired. This data suggests that wind likely impacted the slick’s appearance. As a result, we believe that the Sungai Gerong is the likely source of this slick.

Using AIS, we tracked the Sungai Gerong as it traveled north through the Sunda Strait — the body of water between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra — to the port of Jakarta. Similar to the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda is an important waterway that connects the Indian Ocean to the Java Sea. Though not as dense with marine traffic as the Malacca Strait, the Sunda is still subjected to pollution from vessels. 

We also recently identified two suspected bilge dumps in the Philippines (Figure 2). Occurring on July 6th in the South China Sea, a 238 kilometer long slick behind the vessel in this Sentinel-1 radar image looks like a bilge dump. The Philippine island of Palawan, a popular tourist destination for its beautiful natural landscape, appears on the right side of the map frame. Another smaller slick without a known source is visible to the left of the larger slick.

 

Figure 2: The Ulaya makes its way through the South China Sea. Palawan Island, a part of the Philippines, can be seen to the right.

 

Using AIS broadcasts from ShipView, we identified the Ulaya, a Thai oil tanker, as a possible source of the slick. The last AIS broadcast from the Ulaya (seen directly above the ship) was transmitted fifteen minutes before the image was captured. These AIS broadcasts give us reason to believe that the Ulaya could be responsible for this slick. Moreover, ShipView shows that the vessel was headed towards the Port of Belawan in the Strait of Malacca with a shipment of  Dangerous Goods. According to the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency that regulates global shipping, chemicals falling under this classification are “hazardous to marine environments.” Thus, a slick from this ship could be of greater concern than usual.

These examples show that bilge dumping continues to be a problem in the waters of southeast Asia. But with satellite imagery, anyone, anywhere can see what’s happening on the water and help to raise the alarm. We hope that our persistent and careful surveillance will inspire others to pressure policy makers, government regulators, and the shipping industry to take strong, coordinated action to stop bilge dumping.

“Well Kick” Causes Spill in Java Sea

Following up on recent reports of oil in the water off the north coast of Karawang Regency, West Java, Indonesia, SkyTruth has picked up a slick in Sentinel-1 radar imagery. In the image from July 18th, an unidentified platform (circled in red) located roughly 12 km north of the Karawang shore is shown emitting a 34.7 km-long slick into the Java Sea. A story written by the local Jakarta Post on July 18th describes state-owned energy firm Pertamina’s decision to evacuate personnel and halt operations at an offshore production rig in their Offshore Northwest Java (ONWJ) block. The evacuation was ordered after a dangerous “well kick”, or unplanned release of gas caused by low pressure in a wellbore, initiated a large slick on the 16th of July. A separate report released by the Jakarta Post five days later indicated that the Indonesian Transportation Ministry teamed up with Pertamina in response to the oil-related event, along with several other smaller entities in the area. The response vessels were able to set up a boom around the perimeter of the offshore platform. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop oil from reaching villages and beaches on West Java’s coast. Given the fact that several vessels surround the unidentified object in the Sentinel-1 image, we believe that this could be the affected drilling platform. Pertamina’s upstream director Dharmawan Samsu estimated that it will take approximately eight weeks for the oil and gas leakage to be plugged.

The unidentified platform (circled in red) can be seen leaking oil into the Java Sea. Several small vessels are in the platform’s proximity.

Taylor Energy Oil Spill: This Is How Change Happens

Recently a front-page article ran in The Washington Post, describing the ongoing, 14-year-long leak of crude oil from hurricane-damaged wells at the former location of an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, operated by a company called Taylor Energy.  The article stated that — based on the latest scientific estimates of the leak rate — the Taylor spill was about to surpass BP’s disastrous 2010 blowout in the Gulf, becoming the world’s worst oil spill.  News outlets around the world pounced on this headline, shining a global spotlight on this egregious chronic leak. Within weeks the US Coast Guard announced they had finally ordered Taylor Energy to fix the leak or face a daily $40,000 fine.  The team at SkyTruth was thrilled when we heard the news: when Taylor finally fixes the leak, this will be a great result for the environment in the Gulf and will send a strong message to the offshore oil industry that we won’t let them walk away from their messes.  And, this is the vindication of eight years of persistent, dogged work by SkyTruth and our partners.

Taylor Energy - Washington Post

Source: The Washington Post, October 21, 2018

How did we achieve this significant victory for the environment and the people of the Gulf Coast?  We….  

  • Built partnerships.  We teamed up with Southwings and Waterkeeper Alliance to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium.  Gulf-area citizens groups, notably the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Gulf Restoration Network soon joined, giving us the ability to monitor, investigate, and systematically document the Taylor spill from space, from small aircraft, and on the water.  Alerted by our work, researchers from Florida State University conducted their own independent sampling and measurements, bringing a higher level of scientific expertise to the growing public scrutiny of this continuous pollution event.  
  • Worked with journalists to help them understand the significance of this unchecked spill.  Our methodical, transparent, and conservative analysis helped us build a reputation as being a trustworthy source of credible information.  We developed long-running relationships with journalists, particularly Mike Kunzelman at The Associated Press.  Reporters reached out for our comments and expert insights whenever new information or developments in the Taylor saga came to light.  These relationships resulted in dozens of articles in major media markets over the years, helping to maintain public attention and interest, and a steady drumbeat of public criticism.

And finally, an hour-long interview with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears resulted in an article that triggered Coast Guard action.  Now, of course, we will continue to monitor the Taylor Energy leak to ensure that effective action is taken.  And we’ll let the world know what we see.

This is what it takes, to make positive change happen for the environment.  We’d like to thank the foundations and individuals who have donated to SkyTruth, making it possible for us to dedicate the time and resources to sustaining this watchdog effort over so many years.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Please help us keep it going.  Donate to SkyTruth today!