CAIRO — The United Nations said an abandoned oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil is at risk of rupture or exploding, causing massive environmental damage to Red Sea marine life, desalination factories and international shipping routes.
Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show that seawater has entered the engine compartment of the tanker, which hasn't been maintained for over five years, causing damage to the pipelines and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases, has leaked out. Experts say repairs are no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible.
For years, the U.N. has been trying to send inspectors to assess the damage aboard the vessel known as the FSO Safer and look for ways to secure the tanker by unloading the oil and pulling the ship to safety.
But a European diplomat, a Yemeni government official and the tanker's company owner said that Houthi rebels have resisted. The diplomat said the rebels are treating the vessel as a "deterrent like having a nuclear weapon." All three individuals spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the subject with a reporter.
"They do say that openly to the U.N., 'We like to have this as something to hold against the international community if attacked,'" the diplomat said. "Houthis are definitely responsible for failure of the U.N. to look at the ship."
Money is also an issue, the diplomat said, adding that the Houthis initially were demanding millions of dollars in return for the oil stored in the tanker. The U.N. is trying to reach an arrangement where money could be used to pay workers and employees at the Red Sea ports where the ship is moored, the diplomat added.
Some experts, however, criticize both the Houthis and the U.N. for failing to fully understand the magnitude of the crisis with the abandoned ship.
Ian Ralby, founder of I.R. Consilium, who specializes in maritime and resource security, told the AP that the U.N.'s efforts to send a team to assess the ship are "futile." What the vessel needs is a salvage team, he said.
"It's a real shame that they wasted so much money and time in this futile operation," said Ralby. "If you are taking these years to get a simple team to assess, we will not have a second chance to salvage," he added.
Ralby, who has written extensively about the tanker, told the AP that amid declining oil prices the cost spent on cleaning up the environmental damage from an explosion or leakage will be much more than the millions worth of oil on the ship.