Environmental Emergency: The Salvage of the Seawin Sapphire

Case Study: Environmental Management

This extraordinary operation was concluded with no major incidents and set legal precedent for dealing with future environmental emergencies.

Amid a winter storm in Table Bay Harbour the Seawin Sapphire, a 151 ton fishing trawler, lost engine power, dragged anchor and ran aground on Kreefte Bay Beach in Blaauwberg.   The vessel was vulnerable to breaking up or leaking fuel, posing both public safety and environmental risks. NCC was contracted by the salvage team to advise on environmental risks, secure the necessary permissions, act as environmental control officer and restore the affected beach and sand dunes.

First Enactment of NEMA Section 30

The potential for environmental disaster increased with each day the Seawin Sapphire remained beached.  The only feasible solution for moving her was salvage by land.  The DEA&DP advised that the proposed activities would likely trigger a Basic Assessment Report, so that’s what they asked for.  Fulfilling this request would take months, which would only exacerbate the immediate environmental risks. 

To facilitate the urgent salvage operation NCC met with officials to find a practical and legally sound compromise to satisfying the department’s requirements.   The solution was enactment of Section 30 of the NEMA (Control of Emergency Incidents) which set out the processes for response to such a situation.  It was the first time that the section had been called into force. 

First “Emergency Impact Report”

NCC was given 24 hours to provide the DEA&DP with a risk assessment detailing the proposed salvage operation, an approved EMP and letters of support from Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) and the City of Cape Town (CoCT).   Under ordinary circumstances, fulfilling these requirements would take a minimum of six months.   Meeting critical salvage timelines rested with NCC.   The team delivered to this extraordinary deadline and salvage operations began.    

Search and Rescue

Removing sensitive sand dunes to allow passage of salvage equipment was detailed in the EMP and with the help of the City of Cape Town Biodiversity Branch, NCC rapidly mobilised a team to help in the search-and-rescue and propagation of plants.  Ironically, it was the scores of onlookers trampling the vegetation and degrading the dunes that added urgency to this phase of the operation.

Salvage by Land

The salvage team was highly skilled, efficient and well-resourced for the job.  NCC worked closely with them throughout the painstakingly slow process of moving the Seawin Sapphire up the beach and onto a transport vehicle.   The potential for fuel and hydraulic spillage from the vessel and the salvation equipment was a major concern, but NCC had people and processes in place to deal with any emergency.

Environmental Disaster Averted  

The vessel made it safely to Cape Town Harbour.  Within two weeks the sand dunes and vegetation were reinstated and the beach and surrounding public space was fully rehabilitated.  This extraordinary operation was concluded with no major incidents and set legal precedent for dealing with future environmental emergencies.

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