Incident Management Matters

An irregular blog with thoughts and challenges on all aspects of Crisis Management, Emergency Preparedness & Response, Incident Risk and anything else that comes to mind.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

RIP: Rusting in Pieces

The world’s oceans and shorelines are at risk from an invisible foe. 

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ‘marine pollution from sunken vessels is predicted to reach its highest level this decade, with over 8,500 shipwrecks at risk of leaking approximately 6 billion gallons of oil.’[1]

Large numbers of potentially polluting wrecks are casualties from wars, with tonnage sunk en-route to the UK in the Atlantic during the second World War, some 80 years ago, contributing significantly to these numbers. Corrosion of these vessels, coupled with increasingly active weather events means that the risk of catastrophic failure and hydrocarbon release is getting higher and higher.


[1] International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Issues Brief. April 2023


 [3] Managing Potentially Polluting Wrecks in the United Kingdom; P Hill et al. Threats to our Ocean Heritage: Potentially Polluting Wrecks, Ch 6; M Brennan ed. Springer Briefs in Archaeology 2024. ISBN 978-3-031-57959-2

[4] Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. March 2013.

[5] A Standardised Approach to the Environmental Risk Assessment of Potentially Polluting Wrecks. F Goodsir et al. Marine Protection Bulletin 142 (2019) 290-302

[6] Potentially Polluting Wrecks: defusing the ticking timebomb. Horizons; Lloyds Register Foundation. December 2023.

[7] Assessment Methodologies for Potentially Polluting Wrecks: The Need for a Common Approach; M Lawrence et al. Ch 11; M Brennan ed. Springer Briefs in Archaeology 2024. ISBN 978-3-031-57959-2

Legislating for the Past

There is little in the way of international legislation to encourage active intervention in this pollution risk. The IMO Nairobi Wreck Removal Convention entered into force in 2015, but this only applies to wrecks occurring after this date.  In any case, as is the norm for the IMO, the convention specifically excludes warships.

It is left therefore to the environmental conscience of states with an interest in Potentially Polluting Wrecks (PPW’s) as to whether they intervene or not. 

Respect for the Fallen

It is easy to forget in our desire to protect the planet, that many of the PPWs are also the final resting place of brave seafarers.  Before we rush in to save the oceans, we need to be certain that we are treating burial sites with the utmost respect. Some may remember the protests that accompanied the efforts to explore and raise parts of the Titanic for instance.[2]

SALMO to the Rescue

There are some examples of Governments taking the initiative in this arena though.  The UK government as one of the largest ‘owners’ of PPW thanks to WWII has, to its credit, taken positive steps in this regard, led by the Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) division of the Ministry of Defence. The Wreck Management Programme was born in 2008 to proactively manage the environmental and safety risks associated with its remaining wreck inventory.[3]

Similarly, in the USA, Congress took a substantial step in addressing the public concern on this issue in 2010 when it directed NOAA to conduct an assessment of shipwrecks that could impact coastal and Great Lakes States. 

Sea No Evil

In a year when over half the world’s population goes to the polls, there could not be a better time to get this issue firmly on every politician’s agenda.   We need to see the subject of Potentially Polluting Wrecks not just on the agenda of the traditional Oil Spill conferences, but across a wider range of platforms where the subject can get air-time. If we don’t talk about it, we can be sure that the risks will not get addressed.

The NOAA report[4] in 2013, amongst other things, proposed a methodology for assessing the relative risks of PPW around the US seaboard. We have seen other methodologies suggested by, for instance, by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (cefas) in the UK[5] These are both excellent frameworks and if we can converge on one shared approach that is accepted by all players it would be a great step forward.

A Coalition of the Willing

The Lloyds Register Foundation called for ‘a global coalition of experts to create technical standards and engage international bodies in order to enable a more strategic response to the challenge.’[6]  This was echoed by the Waves Group, a specialist maritime consultancy in their contribution the Springer Briefs report.[7]

Some great work has been done by many people already. However, I remember back to Interspill 2006 in London when this was on the agenda and I worry about whether it’s seen as ‘old news’ now. 

Old news it may be, but the risk is still with us and increasing each year.

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