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Lessons learned from the pellet spill

It has been two months since pellets were spilled on Spanish coasts and, while cleaning is ongoing, the legal consequences and impact on international regulations are under debate in the sea transport industry.

The recent spill of pellets has highlighted the complex regulation of the transport of this type of product that, without being dangerous, can seriously harm the environment in the event of an accident. As we explained in a recent article, their use is transverse and essential in the global economy, as they are key in many strategic industries, so their use and logistics must be regulated to adapt them to the sustainability standards required by the current industry.

Currently, reporting the spill of this type of material into the sea is not even mandatory in international waters, so competent bodies have long considered the possibility of changing their category under law. In the case of Spain, both domestic and foreign ship captains have the obligation to “promptly notify the Spanish Maritime Administration and the competent authority of the nearest coastal State of any event of pollution by hydrocarbons or by harmful or potentially dangerous substances of which they become aware during navigation”.

Anti-pollution Measures

Although the security and control measures in the transportation of mass cargo are subject to study and concern by the main international bodies, the numbers of spills into the ocean continue to occur without great criminal consequences for those responsible, alarmingly affecting the flora and fauna of the planet. For that reason, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) began addressing this issue in 2021, following one of the worst spills recorded so far, which occurred in May of that same year in Sri Lanka, following the fire on the X-Press Pearl vessel. At the time, the cargo, composed of chippings of various polymers from 422 containers, ended up spreading over hundreds of miles of sea, including those burned and melted by the fire, causing an environmental impact that is still incalculable.

Since then, the IMO, commanded by the Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) Subcommittee, is debating the option of classifying pellets as a hazardous load subject to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. This would affect both safety measures and the procedures to follow after a spill.

Until then, the Organization has published a number of recommendations to be followed by carriers, including:

  • Harmonized notification by carriers and ocean operators, requiring mandatory reporting of any loss of a cargo container.
  • Use of suitable packaging to withstand shock and load pressure.
  • Careful consideration of the location of the plastic pellet container within the ship to minimize risks to the marine environment, without impairing the safety of the ship and persons on board.

This harmonization of the guidelines to be followed has been shared by the Association of Spanish Vessel Operators (Asociación de Navieros Españoles, ANAVE), which after being consulted on this matter stated that, “given the intrinsically international nature of sea transport, it would be impracticable for each country to have its own rules” on certain matters. They point out that “the sea is a hostile medium and sea transport always entails a certain degree of risk” that cannot be completely eliminated, but that, together with the IMO, they adapt to the safety standards that affect the main participants involved in the journey and that allow sea transport to be “recognized as the safest, most sustainable and environmentally friendly means of transport”:

  • Vessel: Project, construction, maintenance and recycling.
  • Crew: Training, watch regime and breaks.
  • Operation: Security in transport and operations with cargo, as well as organization of the management of the vessel operator.

Other relevant initiatives

The European Commission has implemented a number of regulatory initiatives to address plastic pollution in the marine environment, including a regulatory proposal to prevent pellet leakage. These preventive measures are highly aligned with the international Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) initiative, a voluntary program for responsible chipping management, which promotes good cleaning and control practices.

The main requirements proposed by this project are:

  • Pellet handling best practices for economic operators.
  • Mandatory certification for larger companies.
  • Less stringent requirements for micro and small businesses (handling less than 1000 metric tons).
  • Harmonized methodology for estimating losses.

At present, and despite the proceedings opened by the Specialized Environment Unit of the State Attorney General’s Office at the start of 2024, the vessel operator responsible for the spillage on Spanish coasts is only obliged to assume the cost of cleaning up. “At a national level, we follow the Maritime Navigation Law, speaking from the point of civil liability, for damage or contamination to the marine environment. We would have the Maritime Navigation Law, where Articles 385 and 386 establish the obligation of the ship owner or the operator of the vessel to compensate for the damages generated by pollution. It is an objective responsibility,” said Julia Rubiales, an expert in maritime law.

By order of this usual process, a few practical learnings from this natural disaster can be taken: “Perhaps more coordination between regional and national bodies would have been necessary because we did see here that there was some dispute between who should act in each case or not, and I think that the issue of coordination does remain something to continue working on,” she concluded.


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