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Deserted Oil Tanker Off Yemen's Coast Could Create An Environmental Disaster

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To the strange story now of a deserted oil tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. It is believed to have more than a million barrels of oil on board. And it's in a war zone, making it a kind of floating bomb with the potential to create an environmental disaster. Well, our curiosity was piqued when we read about this tanker in The Guardian newspaper, so we have called Doug Weir. He is with the Conflict and Environmental Observatory. That's a nonprofit that tracks the environmental consequences of military conflicts.

Doug Weir, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DOUG WEIR: Thanks, Mary Louise - good to be on here.

KELLY: Describe exactly where this tanker is and why that location is critical.

WEIR: So this tanker is moored 70 kilometers off the coast of Ras Isa, which is a port on the northwest coast of Yemen. It's about 40 or 50 miles from Hodeida, which is one of the main ports for the import and export of materials.

KELLY: And where some of the worst fighting from the civil war there in Yemen has taken place.

WEIR: Yes. That's been very much a frontline city and a critical one because the humanitarian aid and assistance needs to come in via that port.

KELLY: Who owns this tanker?

WEIR: So it was a fundamental part of Yemen's oil infrastructure. It was responsible for most of the crude oil exports prior to the conflict. It was owned and run by the Yemeni state oil company. And then in 2015, the Houthis captured the area on shore, which meant that the oil company, the Yemeni government, haven't had access to it.

KELLY: So it's been four years. It is sitting there. The danger, I assume, is that there could be stray airstrikes. There could be some kind of fallout from the war that is ongoing but also that just the environmental toll of corrosion is starting to build.

WEIR: Yeah, definitely. You've got high temperatures, salt water, humidity and a large ship made of metal. So sooner or later, nature is going to sort of take its toll.

KELLY: So how worried should we be?

WEIR: Well, this is the problem. I mean, at the moment, we don't know how worried we should be because no one's been on board to actually check out the situation. And that was something which was supposed to happen this week - that the United Nations were going to do an independent assessment. But the Houthis are refusing permits, and so they're not allowed to access the vessel at the moment.

KELLY: What is the potential scale of environmental damage? And I hear you that nobody quite knows what the situation on this ship is. But if you are looking at a rusting oil tanker with more than a million barrels of oil on there, if an explosion were to happen, what would that look like?

WEIR: It'd be pretty serious. I mean, this is four times more oil than was in the Exxon Valdez disaster. The environmental conditions are different, but the Red Sea is pretty enclosed. There are quite fragile ecosystems - one of Yemen's only marine-protected areas, which has mangroves and coral reefs. There are turtle beaches up and down the coast. And one of the sort of big issues would be is, how would you respond? Do the Houthis have the capacity? No. Does the Yemeni government have the capacity? Is it in a contested area? So we can reasonably expect that it would be very serious if a catastrophic incident did happen.

KELLY: So what is the next step? You said the U.N. was trying to get in. They were denied access this week. What happens now?

WEIR: This is the thing. The Houthis need to grant access to the U.N. It needs to be an independent inspection. It needs to be done soon. And one of the reasons that the Houthis were so keen to keep control of the vessel is that, obviously, a million barrels of crude oil has a fairly significant market value. But there are no export sanctions on oil from the Houthis, so they've got no way of actually selling it. So, yeah, what do you do? It's an incredibly complex political situation.

KELLY: So it is just sitting there as a kind of ticking time bomb.

WEIR: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: Doug Weir of the Conflict and Environment Observatory talking there about the SAFER oil tanker, which has been abandoned off the coast of Yemen.

Thank you.

WEIR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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