Rescue team to begin siphoning oil from rusting tanker moored off Yemen, UN says

CAIRO (AP) — An international team is set to begin siphoning oil from the hull of a decrepit tanker moored off the coast of war-torn Yemen this week, a UN official said Sunday. It will mark the first concrete step in an operation that has been going on for years and aims to prevent a massive oil spill in the Red Sea.

More than 1.1 million barrels of oil stored in the tanker, known as SOF Safer, will be transferred to another vessel that the United Nations has purchased to replace the rusting storage tanker, said Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations development program.

“We have reached a critical milestone in this salvage operation,” Steiner told The Associated Press hours after the salvage team managed to moor the replacement vessel alongside the oil tanker Safer in the Red Sea on Saturday. “This marks, in a sense, the completion of the month-long preparatory phase.”

The rusting tanker is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of export oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen. The vessel is 360 meters (1,181 ft) long with 34 storage tanks.

The tanker is moored 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from Yemen’s western Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Ras Issa, a strategic area controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels who are at war with the internationally recognized government.

The war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country, forcing the government to flee south and then into Saudi Arabia. The following year, a Saudi-led coalition went to war to fight the Houthis and try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.

The vessel has not been maintained for eight years and its structural integrity is compromised, putting it at risk of breaking or exploding. Seawater had entered the tanker’s engine compartment, causing damage to pipes and increasing the risk of sinking, according to internal documents obtained by the AP in June 2020.

For years, the UN and other governments as well as environmental groups have warned that a major oil spill – or explosion – could disrupt global commercial shipping on the vital Bab el-Mandeb and Suez Canal routes, causing incalculable damage to the global economy. The tanker is carrying four times more oil than the oil spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, according to the UN.

The UN campaigned for years to raise funds for the rescue operation which cost $143 million, including the purchase of a new storage vessel to replace the rusting tanker, UNDP’s Steiner said.

“It’s an extraordinarily complex operation in which, first of all, diplomacy was essential, then the logistical capacity to mount such an operation and finally to be able to actually be on site with several ships and put in place the conditions, but also the mitigation measures, the contingency plans, the security plans,” Steiner said.

Funding was a major challenge for the UN which used crowdfunding to help bridge the gap. But the operation still needs about $20 million to complete, Steiner said. He criticized the oil and gas industry for not increasing its contributions.

“You can sometimes wonder, you know, is it really up to a class of kids from Maryland to contribute to our crowdfunding,” he said.

The replacement vessel, now named Yemen, reached the Yemeni coast earlier this month and the salvage team managed to moor it safely alongside the Safer to begin ship-to-ship oil transfer amid unprecedented measures, including a small flotilla of technical and supply vessels, to prevent missteps during the operation.

“Many thought it would never happen,” the UNDP administrator told the AP from New York, adding that the rescue team had up to five weeks to complete the entire operation.

After transferring the oil, the replacement vessel would be connected to an undersea pipeline that carries oil from the fields, he said.

“We’re going to, I think, start to breathe easier when we see an empty Safer being towed” to a junkyard for recycling, he said.

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