Supporting an environmental mission in the Pacific

Hundreds of WWII wrecked oil tankers lie on seabeds amid some of our most precious marine ecosystems. Many are already leaking and urgent action is needed.

In 2018, Paul Adams decided to pivot Major Projects, his Newcastle, NSW, demolition and remediation company, into a philanthropic not-for-profit to attend to an urgent but little-known problem in the Pacific.

The 3,800 WWII wrecks around the Pacific are almost all American and Japanese ships, and after more than 80 years in saltwater, they’re corroding, leaking, and are an environmental hazard. Major Projects Foundation, MPF as it’s known, is working to raise awareness of the issue and deploy solutions to remediate these wrecks.

To do it, MPF bought a ship now known as RV Ocean Recovery, a former New Zealand Navy dive support ship. When Adams bought it in 2018, he says he knew it was “a bit too early” as MPF was a new foundation, but he knew it was perfect for their needs. The RV Ocean Recovery was refitted for MPF, but after spending Covid on ice, when they went to start her up at her berth in Newcastle, “nothing worked”, says Adams.

The batteries had gone down and the control system had lost all its parameters, so we called out to ABB for help.

Brad Maurice is not only the National Direct Sales Manager for Mining Solutions and Services at ABB, he’s a passionate diver. He has a PADI advanced open-water certification with wreck diving qualification and has completed more than 200 dives, including in Australia, Micronesia, Thailand, Palau and Egypt.

When MPF came to ABB with the control-system issues, Brad realised that he had dived on some of the wrecks the foundation wants to remediate, including Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia. When Brad realised the importance of the work RV Ocean Recovery will undertake, he inspired his team to rally around MPF, and the work, including replacing the controller, was done pro bono.

The ship’s control system is an ABB RCS800-P Propulsion Control System, a compact AC800M DCS controller used for supervision of safety sensors, transducers, solenoids and controlling the pitch propeller, clutch, brake, speed of the engine, shaft and pitch position.

The system was installed 17 years ago. Due to the age and complexity of the system, Francis Ji, one of ABB’s highly respected Senior Engineers with 32 years of control system expertise attended the vessel to investigate.

ABB has a network of engineers around the globe. Francis reached out to his network prior to attending site. Through consultation with ABB New Zealand and several members of ABB’s Australian engineering team, Francis was able to obtain a copy of the original commissioned software and a history of the vessel.

Through his wealth of experience on several generations of ABB control systems and with the knowledge available from his colleagues, Francis was able to not only solve the initial issue, but also assisted the customer to rectify a third-party system.

He went through the whole system piece by piece and found a couple of faulty parts and came up with extraordinary results – we were delighted, says Adams.

Bikini Atoll overview map

Supporting our people to make an impact in their community is one of the foundational pillars of ABB’s 2030 sustainability strategy. We have a long tradition of supporting the communities in which our people live and work and we are proud that our team was able to apply our engineering expertise to get RV Ocean Recovery ready for service – and help protect our marine ecosystems.

There are lots of challenges,” explains Dr Matt Carter, Director of Research for MPF. “If something isn’t done, they’re going to start breaking up and crunch time is the next five to 10 years. When these things rupture, it’s the local people and environment that will suffer – we need to get in now and solve the problem before it happens.

CGG Satellite Mapping, based in the UK, is collaborating with us with their full service so we can see these oil slicks coming from wrecks from space.” says Carter. “There are hundreds of wrecks around the Pacific and countries who don’t have the logistics to respond if, or when, they break up.”

MPF has partnered with Newcastle University, the Secretariat of the Regional Pacific Environment Programme (SPREP) and The Ocean Foundation on its Potentially Polluting Wrecks project.

Next up is action.

The project is to go to each of these shipwrecks which we’ve identified as critical and to sit over the top of their ship and send divers down to take thousands of photos to make a 3D model from those, overlay original drawings so we can identify where the fuel tanks are and so on, says Adams.

He estimates they’ll need to spend about two weeks for each ship, and only a specialist vessel such as RV Ocean Recovery is up to the task.

All of these projects are incredibly remote, so onboard is a recompression chamber if the divers run into any issues they have instant access to that life-saving device, he says. It has a crane to onboard equipment such as oil separators, and a back working deck that can take up to 100 tonnes of cargo. It has accommodation for roughly 30 people, so there’s plenty of scope to have the crew, divers, scientists and potentially sponsors if they want to see what we’re doing out there.

The RV Ocean Recovery is now shipshape, and the foundation needs the support of both governments and philanthropic sponsors to continue its work.

Just the cost of operating the ship is about $5 million a year, with its minimum crew of eight.

ABB will continue to support the maintenance of its control system aboard RV Ocean Recovery to help ensure this important work gets underway, and looks forward to our ongoing collaboration with MPF and their vision.

Read ABB Sustainability Report 2021.

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Natasha Hooper

Communications Manager – Country & Process Automation
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