Picking Up the Pieces
The salvage industry has always had its challenges, but salvaging vessels today is getting even more complex due to the sheer size of container and cruise ships, especially. While keeping crew and passengers safe is the top priority, taking care of the environment runs a very high second.
“The environmental aspect of salvage has really come to the forefront in the last five to ten years and it now drives the operation, cost, planning and government intervention,” says Patrick Keenan, Director of Operations for Florida’s Titan Salvage, a subsidiary of Crowley Maritime. “When the environmental concerns are primary, you may have two separate salvage plans; one for fuel removal and one for wreck removal. Even a ship that’s not carrying fuel as cargo has its own bunkers, and if it’s a large ship, there is going to be quite a large volume of fuel that may have to be removed before any other operation can start.”
One of the most effective ways to remove fuel from hard-to-access fuel tanks is by hot tapping, a method that can be used, depending on the depths, attitude and condition of a wreck. The hot tapping process involves attaching a flange and isolation valve to the ship externally at the highest location of a particular fuel tank. A cutting fixture is used to cut a hole in the hull through the open isolation valve. The cutting arm is then retracted, isolation valve closed, and cutting fixture removed. Then a suction hose is attached to a connection outboard of the isolation valve, the valve is opened and the fluid in the targeted tank is extracted by pumps. A secondary hole also has to be opened so that water can come in and replace the fuel.
“Hot tapping has been used very successfully in both shallow and deeper wrecks,” says Keenan, “but sometimes it’s not needed.” For example, Titan recently responded to a tug that sank but part of the wreck was above the water line and was rolled over. In that case, salvors used a vacuum truck instead of hot tapping.
Tim Parker of Parker Diving Service in California, adds: “If you’re dealing with a ship where what they were burning was bunkers, it becomes very difficult because it’s viscous, and you’ve either got the problem of trying to heat the product up to where you can readily pump it while its submerged in water and usually in a cold temperature. Or you use an auger system that draws it but you’re not going to get as much out of the tanks with an auger system as you would by some means of heating the product.”
Global Diving and Salvage, Inc. (GDSI) has recently begun using Radioactive Isotopes to detect vessel tank and hull contents without having to put a hole in the hull. “Patented tooling also allows us to take a physical sample within a vessel’s hull while sealing the sample hole at the same time as the sample is taken,” says David DeVilbiss, Vice President of Casualty and Emergency Response for GDSI’s Seattle office. “This greatly reduces the chance of an unintended release of oil.”
There are also environmental challenges when working with a wrecked vessel located in a marine sanctuary or park, as the use of heavy equipment may not be possible because doing so will destroy what is being protected. In other situations, a vessel may not be recovered because doing so will cause more damage to the environment than just leaving it in place. In this case, salvors may be required to remove all the petroleum products only, however, there will always be a concern of a future catastrophic event should the fuel tanks, for instance, disintegrate all at once or produce a slow leak over time. Additionally, there are times when it’s not possible to remove hazardous material prior to salvage due to sea and weather conditions that could cause the ship to break apart. “You may wind up losing everything; all the hazardous materials you’re trying to save gets spread out in the ocean anyway,” says Parker.
With the advent of larger vessels, removal of hazardous toxic and explosive chemicals in salvage operations has become more difficult, for instance, trying to get to hazardous cargo that’s in a container somewhere in the middle of the stack on a large cargo ship. That’s when lightering the vessel is necessary and the container or containers that surround the container in question would be removed, then the one with the hazardous cargo would be transported to put into some kind of containment facility ashore or on a barge so any leakage could be contained.
Keenan says Titan’s hazardous response team, which includes firefighting personnel, are trained in accessing confined spaces and would deal with the hazardous materials accordingly. “We have plans for dealing with those types of situations but as the size of these container ships grow, the problems get more difficult. You have to do quite a bit of work to be able to extract containers on a ship that’s heeled over significantly, so you can’t just go up to it with a crane and pull them straight off.”
When it comes to the diving aspect of salvage operations, naturally safety is paramount, especially when hazardous materials are involved. “Many times, these materials are not disclosed or known about, so the divers need to be cognizant of this and be prepared for potential exposure,” says DeVilbiss. “Unlike planned construction and offshore projects, many salvage jobs pose risks that would never be engineered as part of the job. Proper crew training and selection plays an important part of safety. Any deviation from our normal diving practice due to unusual situations is carefully evaluated and written out in a Management of Change to address the specific hazards and mitigations for that specific scenario.”
DeVilbiss says the biggest technological change GDSI has incorporated into their salvage jobs is acoustically based. New sonar technology provides three-dimensionally accurate pictures of what’s going on underwater in real time and helps significantly with search, survey, recovery assistance and greater production in no-visibility conditions. “We can now provide a diver a heads-up display in his dive hat with a sonar view of what is in front of him in no-visibility water,” he says. “This can aid in safety and production. Underwater navigation can accurately track divers, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other tools with six-inch accuracy in 1,000 feet of water.”
With advances in ROV technology, the inspection-class ROVs have become a staple now in terms of their use in survey and response as they’re lighter, more reliable and easier to deploy. “For instance, you might want to go inside a ship that’s upside down and you don’t know what you have in there. If you have access to swim a robot in and you have decent visibility, you might use the ROV first,” says Keenan.
Parker remarks that there are advantages and disadvantages of using ROVs versus divers. Naturally, deciding on which to use will depend on the situation at-hand. “ROVs aren’t as dexterous as divers and their operators need to be well-trained but on the other side of the coin, if you lose a machine, you’ve just lost a piece of money, not a person’s life,” he says. “The other thing is the machine doesn’t get tired or cold. I think we’re never going to get to the point where we won’t need divers but we are going to definitely reduce the need of the divers with technology.”
“Proper training can help hone diving skills, but it is very difficult to replace experience when it comes to the unique skills and personalities that make a good salvage diver,” says DeVilbiss. Parker adds: “The American Salvage Association has come out with their best safety practices, as has the American Diving Contractors International. It’s an ongoing process. As we get new technologies and new pieces of equipment, there have to be new ways to make it safe.”
The motto of the salvage industry going forward could be ‘size really does matter’. “We’re going to see possibly 18,000-TEU vessels on the world’s oceans in the next couple of years,” says Keenan. “In 2015, the new locks on the Panama Canal will be completed and ports like Charleston, Jacksonville, Savannah and Norfolk will be increasing their depths. People are talking about raising bridges in order to accept these larger vessels. There will be a problem with one of them and we’re going to have to be able to react to that.”
Remediation is also fast becoming a requirement in salvage operations. “In some contracts, you’ll see not only removal of the wreck but the request to return the seabed to look like it did before the wreck was there,” explains Keenan. “That’s extremely difficult because current shifts and sand movements change because something is in the way, however, that’s another environmental aspect of our business that is going to become more and more important.”