Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Major Oil Spills in Australia

Kirki, Western Australia, 21 July 1991

Kirki - Oil Pollution Incident, Western Australia, July 1991

(Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

Summary of the Kirki incident

On 21 July 1991, the Greek tanker Kirki lost its bow off the coast of Western Australia (WA). During the incident and the subsequent tow of the tranker to a safe haven some 17,280 tonnes of light crude was lost. Serious pollution of the West Australian coast was avoided due to the dual combination of severe weather conditions and the effects of the Leeuwin Current in dispersing the 7,900 tonnes of oil lost during the initial stages of the spill off Cervantes and Jurien Bay.

The response to the Kirki spill involved in excess of 100 experts in salvage, pollution clean-up and Emergency Response Division . In addition, to supplement existing stockpiles, significant quantities of both National Plan and oil industry equipment from Brisbane, Geelong and Port Adelaide were moved by air and road to Perth, Fremantle, Jurien Bay and Dampier (for the cargo transfer process) at very short notice.

On the way to Australian waters

The 97,000 tonne Greek flag tanker Kirki entered the Australian Search and Rescue area on the evening of 11 July 1991. The ship, operated by a Greek crew of 37, was on charter to BP Australia Ltd and was carrying a full cargo of 82,650 tonnes of Murban light crude from Jebel Dhanna to BP's refinery at Kwinana, Western Australia. In addition to cargo the vessel also had onboard approximately 1,800 tonnes of heavy fuel oil bunkers, 200 tonnes of gas oil, 100 tonnes of marine diesel and 35 tonnes of lubricating oil.

The Kirki was owned by Kirki Shipping Corporation SA and managed by Mayamar Marine Enterprises of Liberia SA. The Kirki had been built in Spain in 1969.

During the latter part of the voyage, the vessel encountered rough seas and heavy swell with predominantly west to south westerly weather. Problems were first noticed at about 2200 Western Standard Time (WST) on Saturday 20 July when it was found that the forepeak ballast tank had filled with sea water causing the vessel to trim by the head. The vessel was about 55 nautical miles (nm) north west of Lancelin. At about 2000WST the ship was noticed to be down by the head. Speed was reduced and course altered to 090T to bring the weather on the beam and ease the effect at the bow. Efforts to pump out the tank were unsuccessful and it was found that serious structural damage had occurred to the ship's forward hull section. At the time of the incident the wind was westerly 35 knots and a gale warning was current.

At 0300WST Sunday 21 July the damaged bow section broke off causing the collision bulkhead to fracture and expose No.1 cargo tanks to the sea. Cargo oil was spilled and subsequently fire broke out from the bow, probably as a result of arcing from exposed electrical cables. At this time the Kirki was 24 nm south west of the West Australian fishing village of Cervantes, 245 kms north of Perth. The weather was severe, force 8 winds from the west/south west, rough seas and heavy swells.

Mayday

At 0302WST (0502 EST) Sunday 21 July 1991, a brief distress message from the tanker Kirki was received by OTC Ltd's Perth Maritime Communication Station (Perth Radio) and relayed to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Canberra.

Approximately 20 minutes later further messages were received giving the distressed vessel as being the tanker Kirki in bad weather with a fire in the fore part of the ship and requesting helicopter assistance. The vessel was at this time some 23 miles south west of Cervantes. Perth Radio relayed this message to MRCC.

At 0331WST (0553EST) MRCC issued a Mayday Relay to Perth Radio requesting vessels in the vicinity to provide their positions. At the same time the MRCC sent a telex to the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) Perth Rescue Coordination Centre requesting helicopter evacuation and to WA Police Operations advising them of the situation.

At 0418WST CAA advised MRCC that they had diverted an inbound Qantas 747 flight over the position of the distressed tanker and the aircraft captain reported sighting a large fire on board the tanker.

At 0425WST a further report from the tanker to the MRCC indicated that the fire was serious and the master requested that all crew be evacuated.

CAA advised MRCC at this time that the proposed evacuation was being delayed by bad weather and fog which was seriously hampering the helicopters. The weather was south westerly winds at 30-35 knots with rough seas and poor visibility.

Having initiated the life saving operations and alerted Western Australian National Plan response personnel, the MRCC alerted AMSA's Operations Coordinator, Marine Pollution, to the potential of the incident at 0440WST (0640EST).

At 0700WST the master of the tanker confirmed that the fire was out but the vessel was listing heavily. At this time the first helicopter (Bristow Bell 212) arrived on scene and commenced winching crew from the tanker. The evacuation of the 37 crew was made difficult by the fact that the helicopter could not land on deck of the tanker and could only carry a limited number of people at a time.

The P&O oil rig support vessel Lady Kathleen, on charter to Ampol, had responded to the MRCC Mayday relay broadcastby Perth Radio and was proceeding to the area.

The forward part of the ship had been on fire, being finally extinguished by wave action. The evacuation of the crew proceeded in extremely difficult conditions, with helicopter crews displaying considerable skill and courage in carrying out their task. All 37 crew members were finally evacuated from the distressed vessel by 1200WST 21 July.

Oil spill response

It was confirmed that the cargo was Light Arabian Crude (Murban). A representative of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) was able to confirm that Murban crude had a low pour point, low wax content, low viscosity and was amenable to the application of dispersants. In lay terms the appearance of the oil was similar to black kerosine.

At 0600WST the State Oil Pollution Committee held an emergency meeting. As the spill was likely to affect the coast of WA, the committee mobilised its resources to deal with the spill.

Early estimates were that up to 20,000 tonnes of crude had been spilled. This estimate, together with uncertainty relating to the fate of the abandoned casualty, required a major response to be mounted. Australia's National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil (National Plan) was activated, and, as the incident occurred on the high seas outside State jurisdiction, the National Contingency Plan required the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to assume prime responsibility for the response. Under National Plan arrangements State authorities would be responsible for oil impacting the beaches.

During the morning National Plan and industry oil pollution equipment was activated by the State Committee and sent to Jurien Bay from Fremantle, Geraldton, Bunbury, Albany, Esperance, Dampier and Port Hedland.

The Harbourmaster and Deputy Harbourmaster from Dampier Port Authority arranged for pollution equipment to be brought by helicopter from a number of off-shore production facilities in the northwest and transported south to Jurien Bay.

Representatives of the WA Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Department of Conservation and Lands Management (CALM), Fisheries and DMH met and agreed a dispersant policy for the incident; no dispersant to be used in less than 30 metres of water or within five nautical miles of the coast.

AMSA marine pollution personnel arranged for National Plan equipment to be dispatched from South Australia to complement that held in the west. Equipment dispatched included 20 tonnes of dispersant and a helicopter spray bucket. Selected equipment at eastern state locations was placed on standby. Canberra based representatives of the Air Force and Navy had been alerted during the morning to the possibility that their assistance might be sought at short notice to relocate equipment and perform other tasks arising as a result of operational requirements.

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BP chartered a Boeing 747 and a BAe 146 aircraft to transport 5000 metres of boom, 27 tonnes of dispersant, two dispersal spray buckets, four skimmers and absorbents to Perth from the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre (AMOSC) in Geelong. This equipment arrived Perth airport. BP also placed the TARC Oil Response Centre in Singapore and the industry centre at Southampton in the United Kingdom on standby to assist.

Esso Australia dispatched 80,000 litres of concentrate dispersant to Western Australia on 21 July, 15,000 litres on the BP charter aircraft and the remaining 65,000 litres by road transport.

An overflight at first light on Monday 22 July revealed an extensive slick spread very thinly over the water some 55 nm in length, five nm at its widest point, tapering to 100 metres near where the Kirki was under tow. It was later estimated that approximately 5300 tonnes of cargo had escaped from the vessel's No.1 port tank and 2000 tonnes from No.1 centre and No.1 starboard tanks at about the time the incident occurred. A further 600 tonnes would leak from the damaged areas over the next several days. The closest point of approach by oil to the foreshore was 4.5 nm at a position just south of Jurien Bay. Because of the consistency of the oil and the fact that it was spread so thinly on the water surface it was not considered a threat.

There were signs that natural degradation of the oil was occurring. To enhance the natural degradation process, six fishing vessels were employed to run through the oil and mousse towing the breaker boards. This tactic was successful in breaking up large patches of mousse. Several patches of oil were successfully sprayed with a hydrocarbon dispersant.

A report was received from the salvors that in their opinion the Kirki would not sink and that the imminent danger of a major oil pollution incident was over.

During the morning, the Lady Kathleen took advantage of moderating weather and re-rigged the tow in a more secure manner.

At about midday dispersant was successfully sprayed on oil in deep water in the vicinity of the Kirki and along the westernmost extremity of the oil.

Later in the afternoon, one dispersant spray run was conducted over the heaviest concentrations 10 nm offshore. As the results were inconclusive further spraying operations were suspended.

A total of four flights spraying approximately 6,500 litres of dispersent was applied to oil offshore from Jurien Bay.

Oil containment booms were positioned by helicopter on the islands adjacent to the coastline most likely to be affected. The intention was that these booms would be used if necessary to assist in the protection of wildlife and, if conditions allowed, diverting the emulsified oil around sensitive areas.

Conservation and Land Management (CALM) personnel overflew the area to assess the wildlife population in preparation to implement contingency plans, if necessary. CALM officers would continue to monitor the situation throughout the response phase.

A specialist group of advisers was formed to advise the State Oil Pollution Committee on the practicalities of establishing a port of refuge off the North West coast/Dampier Archipelago to facilitate a ship-to-ship oil transfer operation. Several locations were identified by this group as being operationally suitable for a transfer operation. State authorities found these locations to be unacceptable as they were located in or off environmentally sensitive areas. In view of this it was considered, initially, that the Glomar Shoal area may offer protection from deep ocean swells to allow the ship-to-ship transfer to take place.

Fixed wing and helicopter surveillance overflights continued throughout the afternoon and as the weather continued to moderate the flow of oil was reduced. The oil escaping from the ship spread thinly very quickly and at a distance of five nm from the ship was barely a sheen. The improving weather and bright sunshine appeared to be rapidly evaporating and breaking down the oil.

Local councils with foreshore responsibility in the area of the spill were alerted to have equipment and personnel on standby for beach cleaning operations in the event that the situation deteriorated.

A Bristow Puma helicopter arrived at Jurien Bay late afternoon to assist with the transfer of personnel and equipment between the shore and the Kirki.

During the morning of Tuesday 23 July fixed wing and helicopter overflights indicated that light traces of oil were appearing near some of the islands off Jurien Bay. A very small amount of oil tar balls impacted Whitlock Island. Clean up action, other than to attend to wildlife, was deferred until the full extent of the risk was known. It was not expected that oil remnants coming ashore would have any detrimental effect if allowed to remain on the beach. In addition, the area where it was envisaged this would occur was easily accessible for clean up operations to be undertaken. Choppy seas generated by a strong wind the following afternoon and evening removed the impacted oil from the island.

At 1030WST patches of emulsified oil were sighted four nm off Green Head. Three fishing vessels were despatched to break up these patches and two other fishing vessels dealt with similar patches 10 nm off Jurien Bay.

Detailed assessment reports from the Kirki indicated that some structural damage had occurred amidships and that, from soundings of the remaining oil on board, the amount lost did not exceed 10,000 tons. Temporary repairs were made to stem the remaining leaking oil.

A fixed wing overflight of the Kirki prior to last light showed little leakage was occurring.

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For most of Wednesday 24 July, the Kirki remained 45 nm west of Jurien Bay while helicopter transfers took place and repairs to the damaged section of the forward area continued. This appeared to cause some concern among those who desired that the ship move 100 nm offshore to reduce the threat of environmental damage. However, operational requirements dictated that the vessel remain within helicopter range to facilitate transfer of equipment and personnel necessary to stabilise its condition.

It was estimated by BP that at least 50% of the oil released on the first day of the spill, Sunday 21 July, had by this stage evaporated. Of the remainder, a significant portion had either dissipated or dissolved. Calculations carried out on board the Kirki and subsequently ashore indicated the spill was in the region of 6-10,000 tonnes. This figure was later amended to 7,900 tonnes comprising approximately 5,300 tonnes from No.1 port and approximately 2,000 tonnes from No.1 centre and No.1 starboard. It was estimated that a further 600 tonnes leaked from the damaged forward tanks over the period that the Kirki was off the Jurien Bay area. A further 11,000 tonnes was to escape during the tow north.

Overflights during the morning indicated two small patches of very light mousse, each two metres square, had beached. Widespread sheen was still evident from the air. Based on observations there was little cause for concern.

The salvor onboard the Kirki advised that several of the forward tanks were again leaking oil. This occurred after the tow vessel was reported to have been forced to take evasive action to avoid an unidentified vessel passing across its path. A mid morning fixed wing overflight confirmed that the rate of leakage had increased. The increased rate of discharge was not considered to be a cause for immediate concern. Nonetheless, the Lady Kathleen commenced towing the Kirki further west away from the coast. By 1400WST hours the Kirki was 55 nm west of Green Head, which is 15 nm north of Jurien Bay. The rate of leakage was reduced within several hours, with the ship now being a sufficient distance from the coast to ensure that pollution of the shore would not occur.

A helicopter overflight of the Jurien Bay area early morning Thursday 25 July confirmed that there was virtually no slick left off the coast and little oil ashore. Some residue had washed onto the town beach at Jurien Bay in a thin band along the high water mark. A decision was made to have shire resources disc plough the beach to enhance natural degradation.

A fixed wing overflight offshore sighted traces of sheen only. As a result of observations made during the inshore and offshore overflights a decision was made to terminate operations at Jurien Bay.

Oil spill response equipment at Jurien Bay was stood down as was that equipment on standby interstate and overseas.

At a general debrief in Jurien Bay attended by representatives of authorities and organisations involved with the response, CALM officials advised no wildlife had been affected by the spill.

The majority of equipment transported to Jurien Bay, including virtually all equipment provided by industry, was not required.

One week after the spill occurred, the EPA, with the assistance of local fishermen, conducted water quality monitoring and was unable to detect any increase in the presence of hydrocarbons in the water column. The cost incurred in conducting the monitoring was met by the vessels' Protection and Indemnity (P&I) insurers.

Salvage operations

On 21 July at 0815EST (0615WST) United Salvage were appointed salvors by the owners and a salvage contract, Lloyds Open Form 1990 (was formally signed by the Master of the Kirki on 23 July).

With all crew evacuated the Kirki was drifting derelict. This made the task of boarding by the salvage crews extremely difficult. The Lady Kathleen arrived at the scene at 1040WST and some time thereafter attempted to take the Kirki in tow using the lines left by the crew.

Kirki - Oil Pollution Incident, Western Australia, July 1991

By 1800WST 21 July, Kirki was under tow some 13 nm due west of Cervantes under the command of the salvage master and proceeding westerly at a speed of around two knots. Weather conditions in the area had abated and a favourable forecast was issued for the next 24 hours. As the ship appeared to be in no danger of sinking it was agreed that the vessel be towed some 100 nm offshore and an assessment then be made with a view to undertaking a ship-to-ship transfer operation at a location to be determined. BP Australia placed two oil tankers on standby to accept the cargo.

The Fremantle tug Wambiri arrived on scene at 1830WST to stand by and assist the Lady Kathleen as required.

The following day, Monday 22 July, salvage operations on board the Kirki continued, with the tow remaining within helicopter range for the transfer of personnel and equipment. A BP surveyor was transferred to the vessel to assess its condition.

A decision was made during the day that the Kirki be towed north to a suitable location to facilitate a proposed ship-to-ship cargo transfer operation.

Two engineers from the crew were taken back to the Kirki on Tuesday 23 July to assist the salvors with restoring onboard services and safety equipment.

The Lady Kathleen passed the tow over to the Lady Elizabeth during the afternoon of Wednesday 24 July and returned to station off Rottnest Island.

Two sets of ship-to-ship transfer pumps were flown by RAAF Hercules from Brisbane to Geraldton on Thursday 25 July for transfer over the coming weekend by tug to the Kirki to facilitate onboard pumping and ship-to-ship transfer operations.

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Towing of the Kirki from Jurien to Dampier Archipelago

A decision was taken to tow the Kirki north to a suitable position some 50 nm north of the outer limits of the Port of Dampier in north west Australia for the cargo transfer. State interests requested that the tow maintain a distance of 100 nm off the coast during the 11 day tow north in order to limit the likelihood of environmental damage should further spillage occur.

During the tow north, the Kirki encountered persistent heavy seas, with a swell ranging up to 10 metres. Course was altered frequently to minimise impact on the damaged area of the ship. The already damaged and leaking No.1 centre tank was damaged further and lost almost all its cargo. Wing tanks were also damaged. A total of approximately 10,000 tonnes of cargo was lost during this period.

During the tow personnel were employed restoring services and making repairs to what a principal of United Salvage described as a ship in a "very sick" condition. Those onboard encountered considerable difficulties including repetitious and persistent equipment failure.

The large anchor handling supply tug Pacific Chieftain relieved the standby tug Wambiri on 30 July. With the Pacific Chieftain connected to assist the tow, speed was increased to 4.5 knots.

When the Kirki reached the vicinity of the Monte Bello Islands she was subject to a swell reaching up to three metres.

Advice was received from AMSA and United Salvage architects that it was vital that the ship be brought into sheltered waters out of swell conditions over three metres because of the stresses being imposed on her. It was agreed that the vessel be brought closer to the shore in order to find sheltered waters and to bring her to an even trim and, if possible, provide additional buoyancy.

The salvor was advised that he had a period of up to twelve hours to improve and stabilise the situation. If this could not be achieved AMSA would consider using its powers under the Protection of the Sea (Powers of Intervention) Act 1981 to direct the salvor to take the Kirki offshore for disposal.

In the event, the salvor improved the situation by bringing the ship to an even keel thereby allowing the salvage crew access to the foredeck and forward tanks.

Dampier Archipelago operations

The Kirki arrived off the Dampier Archipelago on Wednesday 7 August and preparations for the transfer operation commenced.

As a contingency arrangement, an Australian Maritime Resources (AMR) Air Tractor was repositioned to Karratha by BP for dispersant spraying operations in the event of a major loss of oil during transfer operations. National Plan equipment was relocated from South Australia to the northwest and placed on standby during the duration of the transfer operation.

Ship-to-ship transfer of oil

The 90,000 DWT tanker Flying Clipper was engaged by the salvors to receive the cargo remaining aboard the Kirki. It departed Kwinana in the early hours of 7 August to rendezvous with the Kirki north of Dampier. The Flying Clipper arrived in the Dampier area on 9 August. The vessel stood off for four days while operations onboard the Kirki to restore, trim and finalise other arrangements were made.

Two attempts were made to berth the two vessels stern to stern during the afternoon of 13 August. Both were unsuccessful due to weather conditions.The vessels berthed shortly after midday 14 August, and pumping operations commenced at a rate of some 1250-1400 tonnes per hour during the early hours of 15 August. The berthing operation itself was carried out with a high degree of seamanship being displayed by the Master of the Flying Clipper in bringing his vessel alongside a casualty being towed stern first and under the influence of strong winds.

Kirki - Oil Pollution Incident, Western Australia, July 1991

The transfer took place while the vessels were drifting. The previously agreed plan to undertake the transfer whilst underway proved unworkable in the strong wind conditions and two metre swells.

A State Government request that the Kirki remain north of the baseline running approximately west to east from Trimouille Island to Rosemary Island meant that from time to time the Lady Elizabeth had to tow the casualty to the north in order to comply with this request. Drift direction during the duration of the transfer was generally NNW/SSE.

The transfer of cargo was completed late afternoon 18 August, while transfer of the remaining bunkers was completed early the following morning. A total of approximately 64,370 tonnes of Murban crude had been transferred plus approximately 1,290 tonnes of heavy fuel oil bunkers. No oil escaped during the transfer operation. The Flying Clipper departed the area on 19 August bound for the BP refinery at Kwinana. The owners of the Kirki awarded a contract to the salvors to tow the vessel to Singapore.

Cargo and fuel remaining onboard the Kirki following transfer operations was as follows:

  • 400 tonnes of Murban crude as a 10cm layer on water
  • ballast in No.3 and No.4 centres (due to rolling of the ship it was not possible to strip below this level with portable pumps)
  • 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO)
  • 165 tonnes of gas oil
  • 108 tonnes of marine diesel
  • 33 tonnes of lubricating oil in various tanks

It was necessary to leave a quantity of HFO and marine diesel onboard from use in the boiler to provide inert gas to cargo tanks during passage to Singapore.

While many problems had occurred on the Kirki since its bow broke away on 21 July, yet another arose at the end of transfer operations on 19 August. At the time the Flying Clipper was departing from alongside the casualty, a boiler feed water pump on the Kirki failed. No alarms operated and the pressure in the boiler went past the 350PSI maximum to 700PSI when the safety (pressure relief) valve failed to operate. A serious problem, including risk of an explosion, was narrowly averted by several United Salvage engineers physically levering the safety valve open to relieve the build up of pressure. This task was accomplished in the full knowledge that a dangerous situation existed and the threat of explosion was likely unless the valve was eased.

What happened to the Kirki

Following the removal of oil the Kirki was towed to Singapore where she was broken up for scrap.

Other information

For information on the investigation into the loss of the bow section of the Kirki, the fire, evacuation of the crew and salvage operation see the report of the Marine Incident Investigation Unit.

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