Onboard systems don't always provide clean, safe water

Sep 23, 2010 12:00 AM

One morning while out on deck having my first cup of coffee, I started talking with Dan, a QMED (qualified member of the engine department) who was enjoying his usual breakfast of a cigarette and black coffee. We were on a ship working off the coast of Panama, so when conversation turned to the subject of coffee, I touted the fresh Panamanian brew the steward had brought aboard.

He agreed, but then added, “Regardless of the coffee and the machine, Kelly, it’s good water that makes the best coffee — and you won’t find good water on merchant ships.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “The distilled water you engineers make on board is great.”

He shook his head and said, “If the seawater we take on board is loaded with chemicals, distillation won’t eliminate them. We have been making water within 12 miles of the coast, so the toxic pesticides and herbicides from the shore runoff and rivers ends up in our drinking water.”

All of a sudden my coffee didn’t taste so good.

Fresh water is vital on board, and making sure that the ship has an ample supply is one of the many important jobs the engineering department takes care of. Most seagoing vessels employ either an evaporator system that uses distillation or a pressurized screening/filtering system called reverse osmosis to convert seawater into potable water. In the evaporator system, seawater is heated and turned to steam, after which the fresh water condensate is collected and used for drinking, cooking, and washing on board. Reverse osmosis forces seawater though progressively finer filtering to produce fresh water. These two methods have been used for decades, but nevertheless have definite drawbacks and limitations. For example, neither will remove volatile organic compounds such as benzene or trichloroethylene.

Another time when I was chief mate on an oceanographic ship working off the coast of California, we took on fresh water while docked in port. After nearly three weeks at sea doing coastal research, and with nearly 50 scientists and crew aboard, it wasn’t long before we had to utilize our reverse osmosis system. One night, after a hard rainstorm, as we watched the local TV news in the lounge, the anchorman reported that the coastal waters had been declared unsafe for swimming because of the runoff. Hearing that, and remembering Dan’s remarks, I thought to myself, “Great, the same water that’s unfit to swim in we’re making drinking water from.”

As part of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2004, the government established that the quality of potable water made on board merchant ships must meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. These guidelines essentially deal with filtering and the addition of a disinfecting agent, like chlorine, to keep people from getting sick from water tainted with bacteria or viruses. They do not, however, address the amount of chemical contaminants found in the intake seawater, such as petrochemicals from industrial areas, agricultural runoff, crude oil or dispersants used during an oil spill.

Recently, water quality on commercial vessels was in the news when it was reported that Mobile Offshore Drilling Units (MODUs) working near the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were using seawater tainted with crude oil and the dispersant Corexit in their shipboard watermakers. Crude oil contains several dangerous carcinogenic components such as benzene and toluene, while Corexit has a large percentage of petroleum distillates, propylene glycol and sulfonic acid. According to the material data safety sheets (MSDS) for both crude oil and Corexit, neither is supposed to be taken internally. Yet reports from the Gulf pointed out that no one was testing for their presence in the drinking water on board MODUs making water in the contaminated Gulf of Mexico oil spill area.

The word among mariners at the scene was that when confronted with the possibility of U.S. Coast Guard inspections of the water systems on the rigs, fresh water from U.S. ports on the Gulf Coast was quickly delivered. The fresh water from shoreside sources met not only CDC guidelines, but U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations as well — and exemplifies the double standard of water quality that exists on commercial vessels.

When an engineer takes on water at the dock in a U.S. port, he is assured that it meets EPA standards for chemical contaminants like benzene. When his ship uses its onboard watermaker to convert seawater to fresh water, however, those same standards don’t need to be met. A U.S. Navy study conducted several years ago recommended that, because of the risk of chemical contaminants in the seawater used to make fresh water on board, the Navy should monitor and test for these impurities in the shipboard drinking water on its vessels. In my opinion, the same should hold true for U.S.-flagged commercial vessels.

There is no reason why mariners should have to drink water that is unsafe or unhealthful. To help solve chemical contamination issues, additional filters could easily be added to existing evaporation or reverse osmosis systems on board. As part of a commercial vessel company’s International Safety Management procedures, regular maintenance or replacement of filters (in accordance with the watermaker manufacturer instructions) could be included. In addition, onboard water testing for contaminants and periodic third-party testing by labs ashore would help guarantee that the quality of water made at sea meets EPA standards.

In the days before the Jones Act was passed, merchant mariners were often not provided clean and sanitary potable water. U.S. Code Title 46, Section 10902 is still U.S. law, and gives merchant mariners on inspected vessels the right to petition to have the vessel declared unseaworthy if they feel the water on board is unfit to drink. The U.S. government has established that safe drinking water must not only be disinfected, but essentially free of chemical contaminants as well. Thirty-six years after the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was passed, it’s time that our government address the chemical contamination of drinking water made aboard ship. The EPA standards for clean water should apply to all American citizens — including those who work on U.S.-flagged commercial vessels.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

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