Polluting in the Shadows: The Shocking Truth about Bilge Dumping


This shaky video was filmed secretly inside a tanker ship. Secretly, because it shows something that should not be there. I am going to describe it in a blog format. There it is. This is a bilge pump.

Ships use it to illegally dump toxic waste in the ocean. This practice is called: BILGE DUMPING – and it’s causing one of the worst environmental disasters at sea. And this video was filmed by one of five whistleblowers.

We and our investigative partners have used their testimonies. It is definitely the norm. A lot of the rules are violated and it’s just how it is. On-site investigations: We are here to carry the Marpol inspection And satellite images: People were intentionally dumping it illegally right into the ocean.

To uncover how ships dump toxic waste in our oceans and how this practice goes unpunished. So what is bilge dumping? And why are we not stopping it? What is bilge dumping First, let’s look at what bilge water is.

A bilge is the lowest part of a ship, where the two sides meet. Bilge water is the water that accumulates here. Except, it’s not exactly water. Ships of this size are massive machines with labyrinthic pipe systems, engines bigger than coach buses, and burning streams of heavy fuel oil.

The pipes can leak, the oil can spill and the engines need cooling and cleaning. All these liquids are collected in the bilge. And it’s not a nice view. Environmental impact We know very well that oil can trap and kill animals. Well, bilge water contains oil diluted with water… plus various chemicals and heavy metals.

Oil can suffocate and intoxicate fish and birds. And even if they survive, their offspring might not. This is the heart of a normal, healthy fish larva. This is that of a larva exposed to oil.

The result: a smaller heart, a slower heartbeat, and lower chances of surviving. Bilge water is so toxic that it has been regulated for more than 50 years. It’s a hellish drainage you really don’t wanna dump in the ocean. And what do many seafarers do instead?

Satellite investigation Why are we going into a hole, Naomi? Naomi Conrad is an investigative journalist at Deutsche Welle and she’s part of the team that led this investigation. “We are going into a hole to have a look at the bilge water and the bilge tank.

This is a very clean, well-maintained ship, but I still want to go and have a look. But that’s not how this investigation started. To find out what happens to our oceans, we looked at them from the sky. This is a problem that has been personally bothering me for most of my career.” This is John Amos.

He found out about the bilge dumping problem 20 years ago when he founded SkyTruth. We’re a nonprofit organization that uses satellite imagery to shine a spotlight on environmental issues around the world. And more precisely radar satellites, which 20 years ago were a very new technology.

And we learned one of the things that’s really good for is detecting oil slicks out in the ocean. Oil companies were already using it to discover oil deposits. When you find a small oil slick that’s always in the same place it’s a clear sign that there’s oil in the rocks down there. But the tables have turned.

In those same images, we regularly see these dark streaks on the water that was not natural, that often had a big ship, a vessel at the end of the slick. Enter: bilge dumping. And at the time, looking at those slicks, there was no way for us to identify the vessels that were responsible.

It could take hours for the satellites to send an image. By the time they received it, the vessel was long gone. It was an extremely frustrating thing. But everything changed with AIS. That is an automatic identification system its use is also required by international law so that vessels can avoid running into each other.

Ships are now required to transmit their position with a radio signal. Satellites can pick up that signal and record the movements of every ship. We know the exact time and the exact place from that satellite image.

And then we find the AIS broadcasts that match that most closely in space and time. And when we put it on the screen, we had a clear match of one vessel’s track, clearly matching the path of the slick.

For this investigation, algorithms were trained to automatically recognize potential spills. In one year, we found 1500 potential dumps in EU waters alone. The oil dumped this way is roughly equivalent to five times the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill — one of the worst marine environmental disasters.

Even worse, that’s a conservative estimate. And even worse, hardly anybody knows about it! And even worse! This is deliberate practice! So why are we not holding companies accountable?

There are other features on radar satellite imagery that can look like an oil slick. It could be caused by ships carrying fish oil, vegetable oil, or by other elements. It’s not sufficient at this point in any courts of law that I’m aware of.

But in combination with other things it can be powerful accessory evidence to help make a legal case. To be taken as proof, a visual confirmation must come from someone on the ground.

Coastguard inspection “We are on a police van because we are shadowing the German coast guards on one of their inspections of a big cargo ship “Hello Captain”, nice to meet you. We are here to carry out the Marpol inspection.

There are two parts to these inspections. First, a very tedious one. The coastguards are going through all the technical documents, and all the ships’ certificates, to get a first impression of what’s happening on this vessel.

Then, a very noisy one… So this huge thing we are seeing down here, that’s the motor. The motors of ships are incredibly big. They produce loads of bilge water every day. I mean, just look at the size of it.

That bilge water is collected down here. We are actually in the bilge of the boat, which is the bottommost part of the ship, in this hole. And finally, this bilge water passes through this oily water separator.

Which basically separates the good from the bad liquid. The good liquid is discharged, and the bad liquid is stored and then discharged at the next harbour. The inspection is over. [Coastguard] So Captain, that’s the attachment about our inspection. All with no deficiencies.

[Captain] Okay, thank you. No problems this time. But that doesn’t mean bilge dumping is not happening. We look really deep into it and try to be always up to speed and to know where the manipulation could be. I think we have a high standard, but we can never uncover 100%.

Coastguards only inspect a fraction of the ships. And only check those already docked in a port, not on high seas where the dumping occurs. But there’s someone else on the ground that can confirm what satellites reveal.

Someone who follows these ships wherever they go. [Whistleblower] Hello Naomi Hey. Hello. How are you? [Whistleblower] I’m good, a little tired, how are you?

This is one of five whistleblowers we talked with. We decided to withhold his name to protect his identity. Thanks to his description we built a 3d model of how bilge dumping works.

Here is the bilge tank, and here is the notorious bilge pump [Whistleblower] So what we did was we used that pump to transfer from the bilge tank to another tank called the clean drain tank, and the whole purpose of the tank is that only clean liquid comes into it.

And we have the facility to discharge the contents of that directly overboard. And here you have it. Bilge dumping 101. [Whistleblower] And the irony is that these pumps are designed to prevent oil pollution.

So the purpose of these pumps is actually to collect oil from the ocean and dump it into a safe space, but the irony is that they use the same pump for such activities.” Such activities also tend to happen when there’s bad weather.

[Whistleblower] So it is very difficult to make out anything… at night. [Whistleblower] It’s really, really dark. And all too often! [Whistleblower] It is definitely the norm. So it is expected that everyone will silently participate in it.

A lot of the rules are violated and it’s just how it is. One gets used to it.” One, but not everyone. Whistleblowers like him are still horrified enough – and brave enough – to speak up.

Conclusion Bilge water can cause tremendous damage to marine life. But in a tight-margin business like shipping any delay costs money. To save time, seafarers often dump it in the ocean. What’s worse, regulations are bypassed with simple techniques, and companies can easily avoid detection.

But there are positive developments. The new generation of radar imaging satellites that are coming is going to have multipolar multi-frequency radar systems where we do have the ability to discriminate the type of material that’s been discharged.

And we’ll even be able to say something about the thickness of the oil slick. Satellite technologies are getting so much better that is could one day be enough to incriminate offenders. Until then, we rely on whistleblowers to stop this practice.

[ Whistleblower] Unless there is someone on board, it’s really difficult to catch someone without insiders. Their testimonies are crucial for investigations like this. But we shouldn’t have to rely on their courage to protect our oceans.

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