Bunker Fuel Contaminated with Phenolic Compounds Found in Stricken Houston Ships


  • Phenolic compounds found in the bunker fuel used in Houston.
  • 80 Ships had 300-1000 ppm of 4-cumylphenol in their bunker fuel.
  • Shipowners are facing issues in finding and fixing them.      

The fuel testing company Veritas Petroleum Services has reported an ISO 8217 fuel standards violations by some ships docked in the Houston area. According to the test results, ships in this area have some phenolic compounds in their bunker fuel which goes against the regulation, reports Platts.  

There were several malfunctions in these vessels once the loading of the purchased fuel was done which lead to this testing.

The VPS Report

The VPS report noted the presence of multiple phenolic compounds in fuel samples, but one in particular, 4-cumylphenol, was found in most of the ships tested. The compound was found in concentration ranging from 300 ppm up to 1,000 ppm, VPS said in a statement late Tuesday.

Sources last week said more than 80 ships had been affected by this fuel, with some ships facing more extensive damage than others.

While ISO 8217 specifications do not explicitly state a maximum content of phenolic compounds, a clause in the 2010 standards states that marine fuels “shall be free from any material that renders the fuel unacceptable for use in marine applications.”

How did it get there?

One US trader Wednesday said the compound ended up in bunker fuel likely from a cutterstock. The trader said some petrochemical streams contain compounds like 4-cumylphenol, which can cause issues like fuel plungers sticking and the failure of fuel pumps, which have been seen from vessels in Houston in recent weeks and months. The VPS report noted that 4-cumylphenol is often used in products like resins for its binding and adhesive qualities.

USGC fuel oil traders said cutterstock has been expensive due to a lack of light cycle oil an slurry in the region, as well as HSFO imports that have seen viscosity levels above 600 CST. A low viscosity cutter would be necessary to blend the fuel down to meet the RMG 380 minimum standards for bunker fuel.

Difficult to Detect

Multiple traders and suppliers said these phenolic compounds did not show up on standard ISO 8217 tests, and required more expensive and comprehensive testing to determine the components causing the issues in vessels. The lack of ease in determining the problem sources said slowed bunker sales, as ship-owners looked to other ports to refuel if possible.

“It’s going to be a mess to figure out,” one US Gulf Coast supplier said Wednesday.

While the compounds have been determined, the original source of the fuels in question has yet to be answered. Previous instances of large-scale contamination that resulted in damaged ships have resulted in extensive lawsuits that require years of litigation.

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