Seabird death chemical to be banned

Monday 21st October 2013

Guillemot cpt Portland Bird ObservatoryGuillemot cpt Portland Bird Observatory

Wildlife charities today welcome the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) swift action to ban ships across the world from discharging all forms of high viscosity polyisobutylene (PIB) into the sea during tank cleaning operations.

PIB was the chemical responsible for the deaths of over 4,000 seabirds on the south west coast earlier this year.

The tragedy, the largest marine pollution incident of its kind in the region since Torrey Canyon, shocked thousands of people.

At a meeting of the IMO’s working group on the Evaluation of Safety and Pollution Hazards of Chemicals (ESPH) in London today, it was decided to change the classification of high viscosity PIBs to require full tank prewash and disposal of all residues at port and prohibit any discharge at sea from 2014.  This will also apply to new “highly-reactive” forms of PIB, which are currently being transported un-assessed.

The recommendation to do this had been made by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on behalf of the UK Government, following vigorous campaigning by wildlife charities and the public.

Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said: 

"We welcome today's ban. The thousands of dead and dying seabirds witnessed earlier this year were the most visible victims of mismanagement. Impacts on other parts of marine life support systems may have been just as widespread, and more serious.  Not to mention the impacts on tourism of dead seabirds on the beach - particularly pressing in south-west counties which rely so heavily on summer visitors."

Alec Taylor, Marine Policy Officer for the RSPB said;

“We are delighted with the action taken by the IMO.  The global trade in PIB products is increasing and with it the risks to our precious marine environment. Today’s global ban on the deliberate discharge of high viscosity PIBs into our seas is a real step forward and one that we hope will end this particular pollution threat to seabirds and other marine life.”

Between February and April this year over 4,000 seabirds, of at least 18 species, mainly guillemots, were washed up on beaches from Cornwall to Dorset in two separate incidents. The majority were dead, but some were alive and taken for treatment by the RSPCA at their West Hatch Centre. The subsequent MCA investigation revealed that the birds had been smothered with high viscosity PIB. The same substance was also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of seabirds off the Dutch coast in March 2010.

RSPCA senior wildlife scientist Adam Grogan said:

"We welcome this decision. Our staff worked around the clock washing and treating these poor birds in January and April and it was heartbreaking seeing the pitiful state they were in.  Hopefully this will help stop incidents like these happening again, and save wildlife from suffering and dying like this in the future.”

The public response to the tragedy was significant, with more than 25,000 people signing petitions organised by 38 Degrees and Avaaz calling for a ban on the discharge of PIB.

Alec Taylor from RSPB added;

“There was a lot of hard work by wildlife charities and the MCA, with support from several MPs on the south west coast.  But the huge support we received from members of the public, many of whom experienced the effects of this pollution first hand as they walked the beaches, was perhaps the clinching factor in achieving such a quick decision to prevent discharges of harmful PIBs.”

This is what has been agreed in more detail:

1. All PIB products greater than 224 molecular weight (MW) and all new highly reactive PIB products will now become a separate Category X set of products under Annex II MARPOL, banning their discharge at sea and requiring full prewash, with all residues removed to shore.  PIBs identified in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset were all over 1000MW, and PIB's chemical profile indicates that viscosity remains low up to 400-600MW.

2. PIBs lower than 224MW remain at Category Y under Annex II of MARPOL.

3. MARPOL is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships, which regulates the marine transportation and discharge of oil and other hazardous substances. The IMO is the United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.

Tagged with: Living Seas