Identifying the Root Cause of the Houston Bunker Fuel Problem


Dr-R.-Vis-CEO-of-Viswa-Lab1.jpgOver the last 5 weeks we have been fully immersed in the task of identifying the contaminants in the Houston area bunker fuels that have caused machinery problems. Our investigation continues. Obviously there has to be a commercial/monetary benefit to the person carrying out this adulteration. What substance will he take (or buy at very low cost) and add to the regular bunker fuel as cutter stock and thereby maximize his profit margin. What drives this? What is the modus operandi?

In the past Viswa Lab has been a pioneer in identifying contaminants and alerting the bunker fuel users. I would like to refer to 3 major cases amongst the many we have handled.

In 1996, a vessel which bunkered adulterated fuel in Los Angeles suffered damage to all the units and fuel pumps. We used GC and GC‐MS for the first time and identified organic chlorides to be the source of the problem. Organic chlorides which are cleaning agents managed to find their way into bunker fuel. Since 1996, many more cases of organic chloride contamination have been reported.

In 2001‐2002, multiple vessels bunkering in Singapore suffered serious damage to machinery and Viswa was the first one to identify the contaminants that cause this major damage.

In 2007, over 30 ships suffered severe damage when using bunkers from St. Petersburg. Through a proprietary pH test method, we were able to show that the pH was really low (highly acidic) and that was the cause of major damage to fuel pumps and fuel valves.

In the present case, we suspect that over 100 ships may be affected by the contaminated/adulterated Houston area bunker fuel. There are a few more details we would like to share in connection with the investigation.

  1. More than 6 suppliers are involved in this contamination. Could it be that a low‐cost cutter stock available in the Houston market was grabbed by these suppliers in order to maximize their profits?
  2. There appears to be more than one stream of contamination. Viswa analysis showed one stream predominantly in most of the 25 problem samples that we have received.
  3. We are also putting together a scenario in which there was a definite commercial/monetary gain which drove the supply of poor quality bunker fuels.
  4. Purely from an investigation point of view, it has not been easy. The substance causing the problem was also choking up the columns of the GC‐MS instrument. Each time this happened, it is not possible to clean the column and they must be replaced with a new column. Also, the number of customers and samples wanting detailed GC‐MS analysis is very very high. These customers not only sent samples from the bunker fuel they received but they also sent samples from various tanks of the ship in order to be doubly safe.
  5. We also found to our alarm that the Houston problem fuel started travelling outside Houston. Two samples from Netherlands Antilles generated similar problems and the constituents of the fuel were very similar to the Houston problem fuels.

Viewing the problems that the ship operator and ship staff have suffered, there is a strong feeling of anger and revulsion that the greed of a few is causing so many problems to so many people. There is no doubt that this type of incident and experience is going to lead to a change in the way bunker fuels are purchased, tested, and used.

Please await more on this topic.

Dr. Vis
Viswa Lab

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