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Melbridge Bilbao

Melbridge Bilbao
Accident date
Accident area
Molene Island, Brittany
Spill area
Cause of spill
Quantity transported
218 containers + 330 cases
Nature of pollutant
bunker fuel oil
Ship / structure type
Container ship
150 m
22.3 m

The incident

On Monday 12 November 2001, the container ship the Melbridge Bilbao (9,650 tonnes), en route from La Havana to Rotterdam in slightly foggy weather and calm sea with 218 containers and 330 boxes onboard, should have been sailing up the traffic separation scheme off Ushant. Instead, she diverted miles from her normal route ignoring shore-to-ship alert calls from the MRCC (Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre) CROSS Corsen.

Shorty after 7:00 am, the Melbridge Bilbao ran aground at full speed (17 knots) on Molene Island, right in the middle of the future Iroise marine nature reserve. Fortunately, the grounding occurred at low tide in a sandy area. The tug the Abeille Flandre arrived promptly on site and took the ship in tow early in the afternoon, taking advantage of the high tide, just after she had been refloated by a French Navy response team but was threatening to drift towards reefs.


The Melbridge Bilbao was towed into a sheltered zone (Berthaume cove) to be inspected and secured before entering Brest harbour. As there was no major threat, the ship was towed towards the Brest's shipping port in the evening of 13 November and was corralled with booms supplied by the French Navy.



On 15 November, the containers stacked on the midship bay were unloaded in order to allow access to the tanks. On 16 November, the Melbridge Bilbao was transferred to dry dock to be repaired.

Then the pumping of the oil contained in the centre tank began. The next day, oil started to leak from the ballast tanks, indicating that the double bottom inner bulkheads had been damaged and that oil was freely circulating between oil tanks and ballast tanks. The oil spilled in the dock was contained by booms which had to be repositioned several times according to the oil viscosity and shifts of the wind.

The operations carried out to pump the entire oil cargo and to clean up the docks required significant resources and considerable work. They ended on 30 November.



The equipment which had been used was cleaned on Cedre technical facilities. These long-lasting operations carried out on the Melbridge Bilbao under shelter in dry dock clearly show the damage the island of Molène could have suffered. Had the ship not been promptly refloated, the winter storms would have dismantled her and clean-up operations on the archipelago would have lasted several months. This is precisely what happened in 1986 in Gijon (Asturias, Spain) after the stranding of a coal carrier.

It can be difficult to understand why apparently seaworthy ships may stray off course and run aground, like a truck in the hands of a sleepy driver. However such events unfortunately occur several times each year all over the world. Such incidents are generally caused by human failure but can also be due to mechanical or electronic failure. Philippe Valois' book "Le transport du pétrole par mer" (published by CELSE) shows that 51 % of accidents resulting in more than 700 tonnes of pollution are caused by grounding, and that tiredness accounts for 50 % of groundings.



On 5 February 2002, the Court of Brest gave the Melbridge Bilbao Chief Mate (on duty on the bridge when the accident occurred) a suspended prison sentence of six months and a 3,000 euro fine for accidental pollution. The plaintiffs, namely the island of Molène and the local association for the protection of the environment, received 2,000 euros and 1,000 euros respectively.

Last update on 21/03/2001
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