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Following sinkings, industry urged to address dangers of liquefaction

Mar 28, 2012 12:00 AM

When the 31,247-gross-ton bulk carrier Vinalines Queen sank on Christmas Day of 2011 in winds over 35 knots, 22 members of its crew died. Incredibly, Dau Ngoc Hung, of Vietnam, survived. He said the ship went down immediately.

The vessel, owned by the Republic of Vietnam, was carrying 54,000 tons of nickel ore from Indonesia's Morowali Port to Ningde Port in China. The probable cause of the sinking, according to the International Union of Marine Insurance, was the liquefaction of the nickel ore.

For Clay Maitland, managing partner of International Registries Inc, cargo liquefaction is an issue that needs more attention. "If we make enough noise, finally there will be a stop to these sinkings," he said.

In a fine-grained cargo laden with moisture, the spaces between the grains are normally filled with both air and water, according to a briefing on cargo liquefaction published by the North of England P&I Association, of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K. While at sea, the water in the spaces between the grains is subject to compression forces, but as a liquid, it cannot be compressed. This reduces the frictional force that holds the cargo in a solid state. With enough moisture, the ship's motion and vibration can cause the cargo to flow like a liquid. As a result, the cargo shifts and the vessel can quickly sink. The cargoes that are the major cause of this problem are nickel ore and direct reduced iron.

The International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (Intercargo), based in London, is also campaigning on this issue, asking shippers and cargo interests to review the testing and processes involved in shipping hazardous cargo. With the sinking of Vinalines Queen, "clearly more needs to be urgently done to stop this appalling and unnecessary loss of life," said Rob Lomas, secretary general of Intercargo.

After three vessels sank due to cargo liquefaction in 2010, "it was at that point we decided enough was enough," said Lomas.

According to Intercargo those casualties were:

- the Oct. 27 sinking of Jian Fu Star, carrying nickel ore, in which 13 crew died;

- the Nov. 10 sinking of Nasco Diamond, carrying 55,000 tons of nickel ore, in which 21 crew died;

- and the Dec. 3 sinking of Hong Wei, carrying 40,000 tons of nickel ore, in which 10 crew died.

In all three cases, the Handymax bulkers were carrying nickel ore from Indonesia to China and sank extremely quickly.

According to Lomas, the major factors in the safe shipping of hazardous cargo is treating the cargo with respect, access to stockpiles before loading, independent testing of the cargo before shipping and accurate cargo documentation.

Extreme care has to be used in loading this cargo. There have to be proper loading facilities, a transparent process and a third-party agency to test the cargo. And the master, on his own, should not have to make the determination that the cargo is safe.

"The master is not a trained scientist," said Lomas. "We do require that somebody step in to be able to provide that independent third-party advice that the master can use to make the decision to take the cargo or don't take the cargo," said Lomas.

There are cases where those shipping the cargo specifically deny testing or inspection of the cargo before loading. Questionable cargo documents have also been discovered in these casualties.

"In a lot of cases, they were literally blackmailed into handling the cargo," said Maitland. "It's illegal. And this is what we are up against."

Difficult economic times can make it hard for a master to refuse the shipment, even if he thinks it is unsafe. "The difficulty is that, in a world where people are going through hard times, there can be pressure on the ships to accept these cargos," said Lomas. "This is morally wrong."

And it is even more difficult to track examples where unsafe or improper loading has taken place, but no casualty results.

"We find it more difficult to get hold of the near-miss reports," said Lomas.

Industry associations have worked with the Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers, of the International Maritime Organization, to pass amendments that would improve the safe transport of hazardous cargo. But these amendments do not go into place until Jan. 1, 2015.

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