A report issued by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on November 24 highlighted the challenges and risks associated with operating in harsh, remote conditions following a fire onboard a multi-purpose vessel chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) while it transited the Southern Ocean.
On April 5 2021, the MPV Everest was en route from Antarctica to Hobart with 37 crew and 72 AAD staff when a fire broke out in its port engine room. The fire was contained and eventually extinguished after 2.5 hours using the engine room water mist fire extinguishing system, but the incident left most of the power generation and machinery substantially damaged in the port engine room. There were no reported injuries or pollution, but the ship had to operate with only two of its six diesel generators.
ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said that 'although MPV Everest berthed safely in Fremantle eight days after the fire, it requited multiple stops at sea for ongoing repairs, and for an expended portion of its voyage the nearest assistance was many days away.'
The ATSB's investigation identified multiple factors contributing to fuel oil overflowing into the engine room, including technical faults, inappropriate watchkeeping practices, characteristics of the ship's integrated automation system, crew fatigue, and the design of the ship. The ignition of the overflowing fuel oil, either due to contact with a hot surface or an electrostatic discharge, resulted in the fire. Of the eight safety issues identified, one crucial aspect was the ship's classification society, Bureau Veritas, approving the positioning of the ship's fuel oil settling the tank's air vent pipe within the engine room's exhaust ventilation casing.
Mitchell explained that among the other issues, the ATSB found that 'MPV Everest's managers, Fox Offshore, had not ensured the ship was adequately manned, equipped or prepared for the hazards and challenges of operations in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.'
Mitchell also highlighted the fact that the ship's safety management was not sufficiently mature for its operations, and the AAD's precharter due diligence was deemed ineffective in assessing the ship's suitability and preparedness.
In response to the incident, the AAD conducted an independent review of its procurement process and shipping standard operating procedures, leading to several process improvements. The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water, under which the AAD operates, initiated changes in identifying, engaging with, and managing chartered ships and their operators.
In conclusion, Mitchell commented that 'the risks and challenges of operating in the harsh, remote conditions of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica are most effectively mitigated by ensuring that ships that venture into these waters are operated at the highest levels of preparedness in terms of crewing numbers, expertise, equipment availability and readiness, and emergency response.'