Houston Marine Fuel Contamination: Veritas Petroleum Services Announce Exclusive Findings

by Steve Bee, Group Commercial & Business Development Director, Veritas Petroleum Services
Tuesday May 29, 2018

On the 26th April 2018, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) issued a Bunker Alert informing our clients of multiple vessels impacted by a sticking of fuel plungers, fuel-pump seizures and failures, when burning fuel oil bunkered in Houston, Texas. At that time it was known to be a wide spread problem that was not limited to any particular supplier or barge, but more a potential upstream production, or refinery issue, with the "true" cause unknown at that time.

Since the initial VPS Bunker Alert, this problem has grown to have affected at least 30 vessels in the VPS Fuel Analysis Programme, making it one of the most widespread fuel quality issues of recent years, with our statistics currently showing eight suppliers and seventeen bunker tankers, in the chain of supply.

Over the past four weeks, a VPS "task-force" stationed across our laboratories, have undertaken detailed forensic analysis of the many samples we have received from numerous vessels. It was critical that we were able to identify which components were common to all of the fuel samples and have the physical properties, which could cause the problems experienced on-board our clients' vessels.

The standard test methods within the ISO 8217 specification, gave no clues to the underlying problem. Therefore it was necessary to utilize additional VPS proprietary test methods in order to identify the true cause of the problem.

Applying our "in-house" acid extraction GCMS method, phenolic compounds were identified as being present in every one of the samples taken from vessels experiencing problems. The phenolic compound of highest concentration in all samples was:

4-Cumyl-Phenol (CAS No. 599-64-4), full name Phenol, 4-(1-methly-1-phenylethyl) in the concentration range of 300ppm to 1,000ppm. In some samples VPS also identified high boiling carboxylic acids (fatty acids) but these were present at much lower levels.

4-Cumyl-Phenol has many industrial uses including, the manufacture of epoxy resins and as an emulsifier in pesticides, both of which utilise the adhesive (sticky) qualities 4-cumyl-phenol exhibits.

Historical cross-checking of the VPS database has highlighted numerous cases dating back to 2007, where VPS have identified fuels containing phenolic compounds which have caused damage to fuel pumps and injectors, similar to those witnessed in this recent contamination problem. In addition cases also showing increased sediment levels at separators and filters and in some cases completely clogged filters.

The presence of this contaminant is in violation of Clause 5 of ISO 8217 which states "The fuel should not include any added substance or chemical waste which jeopardizes the safety or adversely affects the performance of the machinery; or is harmful to personnel; or contributes overall to additional air pollution."