Shipping casualties and clearing-up

After a casualty the clear priority for shipowning, P&I and insurance interests alike is to clear up the mess as soon as possible and start trading again. The last thing they want is a run-in with well-meaning administrators saying that nothing can be done until form after form has been filled in, checked, rubber-stamped and filed, and permission to act obtained from Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Yet this was exactly what happened in 2012 to the owners of the 86,000 dwt container vessel MSC Flaminia. A fire broke out on a voyage from Charleston to Antwerp, forcing the crew to abandon ship and resulting in the vessel being towed dead to Wilhelmshaven in Germany. The owners wanted to send her directly to an entirely reputable ship-repairer in Romania for cleanup and repair, but the German environmental authorities were having none of it. The vessel was full of filth, sludge, metal debris and the dirty water used to extinguish the fire. This was, they said, waste and subject to the Waste Directive 2008 and Regulation 1013/2006, requiring extensive documentation, planning and administrative oversight before any transfer could take place. Owners argued in vain that Art.1.3(b) specifically excepted waste produced on board ships, trains, etc and later discharged for treatment: debris from a casualty, said the bureaucrats, was not within the exception. The result was that the ship remained marooned in Wilhelmshaven for seven months before it was finally allowed to go to Romania. The German courts, in proceedings to recover the resulting losses from the state, initially supported the Teutonic bureaucracy, but the Munich Landgericht then sent the question off to the ECJ: was waste resulting from a marine casualty within the exception?

The ECJ, much to everyone’s relief, today said that it was. The Directive had to be interpreted purposively and there was no reason to give special treatment to waste resulting from a casualty, especially as the terms of Art.1.3(b) were unqualified. Within the EU this now means that vessels can get out of ports of refuge quickly and be sent with due expedition to wherever they can be cleaned up and repaired most efficiently. And a good thing too.

The decision, under the name of Conti II v Land Niedersachsen (Case C‑689/17) [2019] EUECJ C-689/17, is here (unfortunately only in French).

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