The Government introduced the Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 on 17 May 2021, and they came into force on 30 June 2021.

On 13 July 2021, the House of Lords will debate the following motion:

Lord Berkeley to move that this House regrets that the Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/592), introduced as a result of the accident involving the ‘Abigail H’ at the port of Heysham in November 2008, have taken over 11 years to be introduced; further regrets that this delay has put at risk the safety of crews of 425 ships of a similar type on the UK Ship Register; and notes that nine similar incidents to those at Heysham had been reported to the Marine and Coastguard Agency since 1996.

Sinking of the ‘Abigail H’

The 50-year-old grab hopper dredger, Abigail H, had been working in the Port of Heysham, Lancashire, clearing debris from the cooling water inlets of the local power station. During the evening of 1 November 2008, and in the early hours of the following morning, the vessel developed a leak which allowed water to flood into the engine room.

As noted by the investigation report by the Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) into the incident in 2009, four people were asleep on board at the time. These crewmen were not aware that there was a problem until the flooding caused the vessel to become unstable and “roll violently to port, throwing three of the crew from their bunks”. The roll was stopped when the mast and dredging machine came into contact with the adjacent quay. However, the MAIB report noted that it was “unlikely that the mooring lines would have restrained Abigail H if it had rolled away from the quay, and the crew were extremely fortunate to escape without injury”.

The report also noted that the owners of the vessel had put “considerable effort” into maintaining it, and the most recent survey undertaken before the incident had found the vessel to be in a satisfactory condition. However, during the MAIB’s investigation, a leak was found near the aft end of the engine room, close to the bilge suction pipework, most likely caused by hull plating becoming perforated in this area. Further, the regulations that applied to Abigail H at the time did not require it to be fitted with a bilge alarm in the engine room, because it was permanently manned while the main engine was running.

Over the next few days, other compartments in Abigail H progressively flooded and she sank before salvage could be arranged. The MAIB report noted that, although duty personnel at the Port of Heysham activated plans to minimise the risk of pollution, the “port’s emergency procedures were limited by lack of planning and rehearsal”. By the time the vessel was successfully salvaged on 25 November 2008, it was estimated that approximately 100 litres of a mixture of lubricating and diesel oil had been released into the harbour.

The MAIB subsequently made recommendations to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that:

  • vessels greater than 24 meters length but less than 500 gross tons be fitted with bilge alarms;
  • owners of vessels less than 500 gross tons need to formally assess the risks to crew sleeping on board overnight; and
  • owners need to check that emergency alarms are capable of alerting those asleep on board.

The regulations

In 2020, the MCA consulted on proposed regulations intended to introduce a requirement to install bilge water level detectors and alarms on cargo ships that are 24 metres or more in length and which are of less than 500 gross tons.

The resulting Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 emerged largely unchanged from that exercise, aside from minor editorial amendments. The Government intends that through the regulations vessels of a certain size will all be fitted with bilge water alarms:

The intended outcome of this instrument is that all ships greater than 24 metres and less than 500 gross tons will have to be fitted with a bilge water detection and alarm system that will inform the crew of any ingress of water so appropriate action can be taken.

The requirement applies to new ships from the date the regulations come into force, and to existing ships from a year later. This will enhance the safety of these ships by reducing the risk of sinking and capsizing due to ingress of water into bilge and other spaces.

The instrument applies to England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Too long to wait?

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee examined the regulations as part of their fourth report of this session.

The committee queried why the regulations had taken this length of time to implement, given that the Abigail H sank in 2008 and the MAIB’s recommendations were made in 2009. In response, the Department for Transport said that the Marine and Coastguard Agency continually reviewed the priority of the regulatory changes needed. The Government’s response added that, “as only a relatively small number of vessels are in scope of this proposal, it was initially viewed as disproportionate to advance this regulatory package on its own”.

The committee subsequently noted that there are 425 ships listed on the UK Ships Register of a similar type to the Abigail H, and that there have been nine instances of flooding on such ships reported to the MAIB since 1996. As a result, the committee said:

We do not regard 425 as a negligible number of ships and crews and it is a matter of concern that the [Department for Transport] has failed to follow up promptly the MAIB’s safety recommendations.

Consequently, the committee designated the regulations as ‘of interest’ to the House.

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Cover image: Crown copyright.