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Richard’s Bay - The aft section of the bulk carrier MV Smart, aground just outside Richards Bay Harbour entrance, was towed away at the weekend and scuppered 28 nautical miles out.
It followed a seven-week salvage operation in which the fuel was siphoned out, the ship was stripped of pollutants and movable fittings, and 10 000 tons of coal were dumped overboard.
Another estimated 50 000 tons of coal fell into the sea when the ship broke up on the night of the accident, August 19.
The ship, fully loaded and fuelled, had just left the Richards Bay Coal Terminal when it became grounded 250m away from Alkant Strand beach.
The 230m vessel was loaded with almost 150 000 tons of coal and about 1 900 tons of fuel.
The aft section – which housed the fuel tanks, crew accommodation and coal-storing hatches – was towed out to sea overnight on Saturday by the salvage tug Smit Amandla, brought from Cape Town on Wednesday.
It was sunk to the south-east of Richards Bay, where the sea is 1 000m deep or more.
The salvage operation used Dyneema cable (also known as Spectra, a strong, non-stretching material which floats) tied to the starboard side. At high tide the swell and wind helped the ship to became buoyant and around 3pm it was able to be towed away.
Captain Saroor Ali, executive manager (east coast) of the South African Maritime Safety Authority, said weather conditions had helped the salvage operation.
All ship movement had been stopped from 1pm to 6pm to allow the operation to go ahead.
Speaking late on Saturday, Ali said the biggest fear had been a fuel spill, as there were important eco-systems nearby, such as the uMfolozi and uMlalazi estuaries, and the uMlathuze Sanctuary.
The World Heritage Site, the iSimangoliso Wetland Park, is also north of Richards Bay.
“Phase one (of the salvage operation) was removing the fuel from the aft section,” said Ali.
Phase two was the preparation to tow it away. During this phase, secondary pollutants such as paint and diesel oil were removed. Any strippable parts, including lifeboats, were also removed.
The forward part of the ship, which houses the engine room and several more coal hatches, now remains. The ship had split around the sixth and seventh hatches of the nine-hatch ship.
Ali said the salvaging the forward section would be more demanding as it had flooded. The coal inside had turned into slurry. It would have to be pumped out with a submersible pump.
“Hatch one, two and three were above the water when the ship split; now only one-and-a-half hatches are above water,” said Ali.
Tenders had been invited for this phase and the successful bidder was likely to be named within the next few weeks.
“This section has presented a constantly changing scenario, and that means that the scope of work constantly changes, so we keep having to tweak the tender requirements,” he said.
The MV Smart, owned by a Greek company, was fully insured, and taxpayers had not had to carry any of the salvage costs. He was not yet able to quantify the cost.
The harbour is dredged every year, and it is hoped that the coal on the seabed will be removed then.
However, lumps of coal are washing on to the beach.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research had been taking regular water samples and providing interim reports, said Ali. A final report on the quality of the water was expected soon.
“With the next (salvaging) phase, we want the entire forward section removed, said Ali. “We want to see a situation where – as with the aft section – nothing remains.”