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Wrecked Russian diesel tanker ship should be wake-up call for Arctic nations

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Google Nordvik, and you’ll get a lot of hits, but very few of them talk about the 435-foot Russian-flagged ship that was traveling around the tip of Siberia last week carrying goodness-only-knows how much diesel. On Sept. 5, the tanker hit some ice, which tore a 40-inch-by-4-inch-hole in its port-side ballast tank. The crew installed a cement box over the hole to stop the water flow, and the ship is now waiting for another ship to arrive to transfer its load. So far, no reports have been made of any oil spilled. 

Only one news source -- the Barents Observer out of Norway -- and a couple of Russian official pages mention the incident, which occurred almost a week ago. But it speaks volumes on several different levels. 

First, the Nordvik was apparently not supposed to be operating in even light ice conditions without a Russian nuclear icebreaker escort. The conditions in the area north of Siberia where the accident occurred were listed as medium ice conditions. 

Russia has instituted regulations over travel in the Northern Sea Route, including the creation of the Northern Sea Route Administration, which issues permits for travel to all vessels transiting the passage. Fees apply for any required nuclear ice breakers, of which Russia has six Arctic class and two more built for shallow waters. Fees also apply for the use of any of the country’s 17 ports along the passage. 

But even with all the infrastructure and all those rules, ships are getting into trouble. It begs the question of whether or not Russia has the manpower and equipment to enforce the rules it has created in the name of safe passage. 

If the Nordvik is any indication, there will be a steep learning curve as vessels attempt to go where few have gone before, even if ice conditions continue receding at a reliable rate. 

This is really only the second year when any significant number of vessels have gone through the Northern Sea Route. Last year, fewer than 50 ships went through the Arctic waters, which shave weeks off transit between Asia and Europe compared to using the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. This year, more than 400 vessels have registered for permits, and more than 200 were granted. The Chinese cargo ship Yong Sheng, a 19,000-ton vessel operated by Cosco Group, sailed from a northeastern China port on Aug. 8 and arrived in Rotterdam, Germany this week.

But perhaps the bigger question the Nordvik incident illustrates is how little coordination there is currently between Arctic nations. Virtually no one in the United States is talking about this ship and you can bet that once word gets out about it, more than a few environmental organizations opposed to the opening up of Arctic waters are going to be pounding the drum that this is an example of why the world is not ready for Arctic ocean travel. 

But Russia, which recently rejected Greenpeace’s request to travel through the passage, seems to be in no hurry to get the word out that a ship essentially defied its rules and got into trouble as a result. This country that has been heralded by many Arctic leaders as an example of a proactive approach to the opening Arctic market seems less than interested in showing its soft underbelly. 

So now what? There are literally hundreds of tankers, a good portion carrying diesel and other products, set to zoom through the Arctic this year, if ice conditions don’t lock the travel down first. Alaska knows all too well the seriousness of what happens when the theory that oil and water don’t mix is put to the test. Next year, assuming nothing changes regulations-wise, the number of shippers hot to jump on heels of China’s first successful expedition through the Arctic will surely be significant. 

What if a vessel like the Nordvik encounters an ice floe closer to Alaska waters? How will Russia respond? How will the rest of the Arctic nations respond? What resources do we have to respond to such an incident in a timely manner so that a disaster can be averted? And, even more importantly, what guarantee do we have that we will even know about such an incident quickly enough to take action to protect Arctic waters. 

Currently, almost a week after its collision with the ice floe, the Nordvik is reportedly drifting in the Matisen Straight where the accident occurred, waiting for another vessel to arrive so it can transfer its load of diesel -- not the safest procedure in northern waters in the fall -- and is hoping to be escorted back to the port of Hatanga by a nuclear icebreaker. 

At least one agency, the Seafarer’s Union of Russia, is up in arms about the accident, saying the Nordvik had no business being in the Northern Sea Route in conditions that were beyond its capacity. The union further claimed in a release that Russia’s search and rescue system is under- developed and serious accidents may occur to mariners because of the rush to get the route up and running. 

The bottom line is this: Nordvik’s mishap offers us much the same opportunity that the Shell oil rig Kulluk’s grounding last New Year’s Eve did. It provides a bright red warning flag on the horizon of Arctic shipping and development with very little, if any, cost to the environment. The question is, will lawmakers, not to mention the citizens whom they represent, heed this warning, or will it go ignored until the next, more serious, accident happens.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.comThis article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.