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Cornelia deadline looms this week

The Cornelia rides at anchor off of Park Point earlier this month. Steve Kuchera /

For the oceangoing freighter Cornelia, Monday marked 40 days of detainment offshore from Duluth. But it’s not the days behind it that matter most now.

For its cargo to reach its destination at ports along the Mediterranean Sea, the German-owned vessel would need to meet a rough deadline of Friday to depart Duluth. After that, it would risk not making the closing of the Welland Canal between lakes Erie and Ontario by the time it closes for the season on Dec. 26.

Oceangoing vessels then need to exit the last set of locks in Montreal before the St. Lawrence Seaway System closes on Dec. 30.

“A decision has to be forthcoming,” said Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “It’s getting down to the wire. We’d all like a simple answer, but I don’t think there’s going to be one.”

The United States Coast Guard said earlier this month it has been negotiating a security agreement that would permit the vessel to leave port while maintaining the integrity of its investigation into the ship. MST, the ship’s German operator, has said a decision is in the hands of the ship’s owners in Bremen, Germany. MST has not responded to the News Tribune’s most recent attempts to reach them.

“It’s very frustrating for us to see and it’s frustrating for the owner of the cargo, which we serve,” said spokesman Marc Gagnon of Fednav, a Canadian ship owner and operator. “If it was our ship we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

While Fednav operates its own fleet of ships, it was only handling the Cornelia’s grain cargo for a flour mill operator overseas. The mill operator, Gagnon explained, chartered the Liberian-flagged ship in a practice that is common.

“You hope for the best,” Gagnon said. “It’s the nature of shipping. The owner of the vessel is always the last one responsible in this case.”

Before it was held at anchor outside Duluth, the Cornelia received a full load of grain during the first week of November at the CHS dock in Superior. The cargo has been reported to be worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the reason for the ship’s detainment by the Coast Guard — “violations related to the discharge of oily water,” it said in a news release earlier this month — is among the oldest regulations in the international maritime industry.

Following a spate of tanker accidents in the mid-1970s, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships adopted a series of regulations that went into effect in 1983. Among the first measures it adopted covered “the prevention of pollution by oil from operational measures as well as from accidental discharges,” said the International Maritime Organization on its website.

Careful not to speak about the Cornelia specifically in what has been a tight-lipped investigation, Lt. Patrick Lammersen of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Duluth spoke to the News Tribune on Monday about oily water discharge — what it is and how it’s generally handled.

“Ships generate oily wastewater in a number of different ways,” Lammersen said. “It’s not like your car engine. When a ship leaks oil, it’s supposed to; it’s OK.”

In addition to a ship’s main engines, there are generators, air compressors and a host of small engines — any and all of which can seep oil through gaskets and require oil changes that produce dirty oil requiring disposal.

The waste oil ultimately enters into bilge tanks — the lowest collection tanks on a ship and into which propulsion systems drain. The waste oil can be disposed of in a couple of ways, Lammersen explained. A ship can retain the oily water until it’s able to offload it at port to a reception rig or facility, in the same manner a ship discharges its sewage. A ship can also use an oily water separator that processes the waste on board the ship. The oil is taken out of the water until the water is clear enough — 15 parts per million, said Lammersen — to discharge into specified passages of water in a seaway.

With the use of an oily water separator, Lammersen said a vessel can go from having 1,000 gallons of oily water to 400 gallons of sludge, clearing extra room in the bilge tanks. Some ships even carry incinerators approved to burn their oily sludge — a process that’s also regulated. Oily water disposal is logged in an oily record book, which accounts for the length of time the separator is run, the amount of oily water through the system and the corresponding location of the discharge. Oily record books are kept by the chief engineer on board the ship.

Oily record books are checked as part of the port state control program, in which the Coast Guard checks foreign vessels at what Lammersen called “certain intervals” throughout their interactions with U.S. ports.

“You could find something wrong that way,” Lammersen said of studying an oily record book. “If we find inconsistencies we’ll do what we call an expanded exam. For oily water, if there’s an issue when we look at discharge that’s when we’d start digging into it.”