Magic Pipe: The Mystery of the Illegal Activity Still Continues on Ships

Firstly, “Magic Pipe” is not an official term. If you have worked on ships or have kept a track of the shipping industry, you must have heard about incidents related to the mysterious “magic pipe”.

Technically, “Magic Pipe” is a detachable, flexible or solid pipe which is used to throw excess of oily water from the ship’s storage tanks to the sea, whenever required. It’s kind of an additional attachment which by-passes the ship’s oil water separator to pump out the oil directly over board. Thus, the handy pipe can remain true to its name by “magically” making the oily water disappear and getting the oily bilge tank levels back to normal.

The pipe can be disconnected when not in use and hidden in a safe place so that no port state or regulatory authority can find it.

According to marine law, even a drop of oil cannot enter the sea without being treated by the oily water separator. As per the Maritime Law-MARPOL, discharging of oil to the sea is a criminal offence and therefore the usage of magic pipe is strictly prohibited to minimize the growing effects of marine pollution on marine environment. However, “magic pipes” are still used by many officers, who obviously have mastered the ways to use the magic pipe and to hide it as well when not in use.

Magic Pipe is Still Very Much in Use

Even with so many stringent regulations and laws pertaining to marine environment protection, which includes imprisonment if found guilty along with huge fines, there have been several cases in the past few years where magic pipe has been found onboard and people arrested for the use of the same.

A recent example was the arrest of a Chief engineer from Greece who was sentenced to imprisonment by the district of Mary land for using the magic pipe in June 2011.

Why Officers Still Use Magic Pipe?

 Magic pipe came in to limelight when US coast guard convicted a Chief engineer for using magic pipe, and the concerned company had to pay the highest fine ever of $ 10.5 million. Since then port authorities around the world have been extremely cautiously regarding the use of magic pipe by ship’s personnel and have taken extra steps to find out about such illegal activities.

Why magic pipe is still used? Obviously to save one’s skin. A sudden increase in the bilge tank level or excess of oil entering the engine room storage tanks due to a major leakage are some of the reasons that can give sleepless nights to ship’s engineers. In case of such incidents, the engineer has to answer several questions both from the company and the seniors, and face serious consequences if found irresponsible and guilty. In order to save himself from the stress and to ensure that no red mark comes in his performance report, the ship engineer do take such short-cut to save his skin.

Below are some of the main reasons behind the use of magic pipe on ships

  •  Wrong entry done in oil record book; to compensate the same magic pipe is used to adjust the reading.
  • The leakage in the engine room is more, which is filling up the tanks. To maintain minimum bilge level without showing oily water separators running hours, magic pipe is used. This eliminates unwanted questions, especially from the company.
  • Chief engineers sometimes don’t want to run oily water separator as they are not aware of its operation or terrified of using as it has a record system in oil content monitor. They think that there can be a mismatch between oil record book reading and oil content monitor record which can create trouble. Thus, magic pipe comes handy
  • The condition of oily water separator is not maintained properly, or the machinery is malfunctioning. According to marine law, a ship cannot run with a faulty oily water separator. In order to hide this fact or to cut off the time of repair of the equipment, people on board ship use magic pipe.

Some other reasons also include

  • Lack of seriousness about environmental issues and laws because of wrong attitude.
  • Lack of environmental awareness and MARPOL trainings.
  • In order to impress seniors and the company. (Less the number of running hours of Oily water separator means less amount of leakage in the engine room and better is its condition )

What has been done until now to prevent use of Magic Pipe?

  •  Companies are giving training about MARPOL and marine environment.
  • Companies are making seafarers sign a MARPOL pledge form which is a type of undertaking not to involve in such activities and would not be a part of the consequences if the seafarer is found involved in such illegal activity.
  • Sealing system i.e. all pipe lines and flanges of O.W.S system are sealed and seal number entered in seal record.
  • Regulatory authority impose high monitory fine on the individual and on the company to eliminate such crime.
  • Imprisonment to the individuals involved in such acts.
  • Shore reception facility provided by the company if bilge level is high or O.W.S not efficient.
  • 200 % spares for OWS filters and 100% spares for other parts like O.C.M pump, 3 way valve etc. is being made compulsory on ships.
  • Weekly performance test of oil filtering equipment is done to ensure O.W.S is working efficiently.
  • Immediate assistance from the company is taken if oil filtering equipment face major problem.
  • Regular Port state inspection of OWS equipment and system.Many other measures have been taken, both from the administration and the company side to prevent any incident related to marine pollution, for the consequences and fines imposed as a result are grave. However, unfortunately, because of a few reckless and irresponsible ship personnel, the magic and mystery of magic pipe still continues on board ships around the world.

About Author

Raunek Kantharia is a marine engineer turned maritime writer and entrepreneur. After a brief stint at the sea, he founded Marine Insight in 2010. Apart from managing Marine Insight, he also writes for a number of maritime magazines and websites.

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  1. In the present day the use of these ‘magic pipes’ is quite unacceptable, systems are now available that actually work although the regulatory framework was drawn up well before the technology was readily available.

    Stating that ‘the machinery is malfunctioning’ is not the same as ‘the machinery is not fit for purpose’ as was certainly the case until membrane type filtration systems and similar solutions became marinised.

    The regulatory authorities who approved the early seperators and the content monitoring systems (which are still in use on some ships) should share some of the blame in my opinion.

    In my opinion it about time that regulatory authorities, manufacturers and vessel owners put a line under the past and installed working systems on all the vessels still at sea to give our seas a chance for a clean future.

  2. Good day! Please note that “Magic Pipes” are objects of the past. The present has “Fixed Pipes” or “Fixed Magic Pipes” built into the Engine Room bilges pumping arrangement/plan which ship’s personnel use to pump out the bilges directly overboard as Surveyors & PSC Inspectors do not check these systems. All vessels have “Direct Bilge” (For Emergency use only) and “Normal Bilge” (for pumping into the Bilge Holding Tank) pipelines. Many Chief Engineers & other engine room personnel resort to using the Direct Bilge system to pump out the bilges directly overboard hence this practice needs to be stopped.
    To avoid this practice the valves in question should be sealed by material which is easily broken when the wheel is turned. The sea should have a Serial number and that serial number should be logged in the engine Room Log book and also the “Oil Record Book”. This way nobody can tamper with the seal without the authorities knowing. If the seals are tampered with then there will be questions asked and if oil is pumped overboard through the Direct Bilge line then the authorities can find out at once.
    Trust the suggestion is useful to prevent deliberate pumping out of engine room bilges directly overboard.

    Best regards and have “A Great Day”

  3. “Chief engineers sometimes don’t want to run oily water separator as they are not aware of its operation or terrified of using as it has a record system in oil content monitor.”

    If a chief engineer is in this position, then there are some serious failings within the company. Employing a chief engineer lacking in skills or knowledge. Having an attitude of fear that makes a senior officer scared of using installed equipment on his vessel. An attitude that the company will willfully or knowingly expect a senior officer to NOT comply with MARPOL. That attitude comes from the office, and if they are not willing to comply, or employing the wrong people, you are in the wrong company.

    As a 3rd engineer, we are currently being encouraged to report more near misses. Any we do report are invariably turned into a witch-hunt, and now management can’t understand why we aren’t reporting them anymore?

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