Risks and challenges of operating in harsh, remote conditions

A fire on board a multi-purpose vessel chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division while transiting the Southern Ocean highlights the risks and challenges of operating in harsh, remote conditions.

On 5 April 2021, the 145 m MPV Everest was en route from Antarctica to Hobart with 37 crew and 72 Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) staff on board when a fire broke out in its port engine room.

The fire was contained and eventually extinguished using the engine room water mist fixed fire-extinguishing system after about 2.5 hours, and there were no reported injuries or pollution as a result of the fire. Most of the port engine room’s power generation and machinery was substantially damaged, leaving the ship with just two of its six diesel generators operational.

“Although MPV Everest berthed safely in Fremantle eight days after the fire, it required multiple stops at sea for ongoing repairs, and for an extended portion of its voyage the nearest assistance was many days away,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said.

The final report from the ATSB’s investigation into the accident details a number of factors, including technical faults, inappropriate watchkeeping practices, characteristics of the ship’s integrated automation system, crew fatigue, and the design of the ship itself, contributed to fuel oil overflowing into the engine room. The ignition of this overflowing fuel oil, either as a result of contact with a hot surface or an electrostatic discharge resulted in the fire.

Among eight safety issues identified, the ATSB found the ship’s classification society, Bureau Veritas, had approved the ship’s fuel oil settling tank’s air vent pipe being positioned within the engine room’s exhaust ventilation casing.

“While this air pipe was not designed for the egress of fuel, this incident demonstrated that it was a possibility, and international regulations specified that air pipes for fuel oil tanks must discharge to a safe position on the open deck,” Mr Mitchell explained.

“However, Bureau Veritas’ design approval processes had not identified any potential risks with the positioning of this air pipe in MPV Everest’s engine room ventilation casing and consequently, had approved the design, which contributed to the overflowing fuel entering the engine room.”

While not contributing to the fire itself, the remaining seven safety issues were found to have increased the level of risk in the accident.

“Among these issues, the ATSB found that MPV Everest’s managers, Fox Offshore, had not ensured the ship was adequately manned, equipped or prepared for the hazards and challenges of operations in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica,” Mr Mitchell said.

“Additionally, the ship’s safety management system was neither sufficiently mature for its operations, nor had it been effectively implemented on board.”

The investigation also concluded that the AAD’s pre-charter due diligence was ineffective in properly assessing the suitability and level of preparedness of the ship, its crew and safety management system for operations in Antarctica.

The AAD has advised the ATSB that an independent review of its procurement process and shipping standard operating procedures had led to several areas of process improvements, which are further detailed in the final report.

In addition, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (under which the AAD operates) advised the ATSB it had initiated a number of changes to the way it identifies, engages with, and manages chartered ships and their managers/operators.

“In the event of an abandonment, factors such as distance, weather, and availability of suitable search and rescue assets would have made any potential rescue of MPV Everest’s complement extremely challenging, with a successful outcome far from assured,” Mr Mitchell said.

“The risks and challenges of operating in the harsh, remote conditions of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica are most effectively mitigated by ensuring that ships that venture into these waters are operated at the highest levels of preparedness in terms of crewing numbers, expertise, equipment availability and readiness, and emergency response.”

You can find here the final report: Engine room fire on board MPV Everest, Southern Ocean, 5 April 2021

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