Home Associations American P&I Club executive John Wilson warns that containerised dangerous cargoes undeclared pose catastrophic threat

American P&I Club executive John Wilson warns that containerised dangerous cargoes undeclared pose catastrophic threat

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John Wilson

John Wilson

American P&I Club executive John Wilson warns that containerised dangerous cargoes undeclared pose catastrophic threat,  by James Brewer

Governments should consider implementing tougher measures to clamp down on the practice of misdeclaring dangerous goods shipped by sea, American P&I Club technical director for Asia John Wilson has urged.

Mr Wilson said it needed just one container carrying flammable goods to overheat for there to be “catastrophic consequences” for a ship. Legislation and government resources needed to catch up with the scale of the risk posed by the growth in size of containerships, which meant claims exposure was increasing, he asserted.

He said that legislators and the industry faced the dilemma that cracking down too hard could make offenders, who misdeclared or failed to declare dangerous goods in order to avoid voyage restrictions and dearer freight rates, even more furtive.

Mr Wilson highlighted the breadth of the problem in a hard-hitting address to the 2014 annual conference of the International Union of Marine Insurance, which took place in Hong Kong, the city where he is based.

Of potential solutions, he said: “There is no easy fix.” Action that could be considered included more research into the safe carriage of dangerous goods, in particular, the effects of heating. “Can the research results be promulgated and changes in transportation codes be made promptly and then enforced?”

Could the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code be made available in more languages than English, French, and Spanish?

Could legislation be enacted and enforced so that shore- based training in the knowledge of transport of dangerous goods became more widespread, to a better standard, and more effective?

Could charterers ensure that charterparty requirements for dangerous goods are made well known to the carriers and to the container load planners?

Could terminal operators better communicate and plan with vessel personnel so that checks of all dangerous goods cargo were made ashore before loading?

Could carriers and charterers better communicate with cargo interests to assist them to comply with the Code?

Could national authorities clamp down more severely on cargo interests who contravene dangerous goods regulations and who do not properly equip or train their staff?

Were stiffer financial penalties a way to make companies act accordingly?

Could contravening parties be blacklisted, licences be revoked, or additional training enforced?

Could containerships be equipped with powerful high pressure water spray equipment more suited to combat fires in holds without securing hatch covers which blocks venting of explosive gas?

Hong Kong skyline. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Information Services Department.

Hong Kong skyline. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Information Services Department.

Mr Wilson said that further enforcement involved a “balancing act” as it might result in more shippers taking the easy option and not declaring a dangerous goods cargo.

Mr Wilson raised concerns over training courses that were internet-based: “There is a website from which you can complete these courses within one hour and then print out your certificate.” He questioned whether national authorities were monitoring and approving such courses.

“Most shipments arrive in good order, without incident, ” he said. “How much does that mean the carrier was lucky and undeclared or misdeclared goods did not cause a problem during the voyage?”

He asked his audience to estimate what percentage of the total containers on a west bound (Europe/Mediterranean) containership from the Far East (Hong Kong, China, Singapore) would be containers packed with dangerous goods ? The correct answer was 2.5%.

“So, 2.5% of the containers would be ‘declared’ dangerous goods. Does not sound very much, does it, but how many containers is that?” he asked. “That is the key.

“To put that into context :  in a 6, 000 teu vessel , that would mean 150 containers – and that is those declared as dangerous goods. An 18, 000 teu vessel could have as many as 450 containers with dangerous goods on board. They may not behave as intended; they may be unstable under certain conditions.”

He went on: “The bigger question is: how many have been misdeclared?”

In Hong Kong, which handles 20m boxes a year, there were instances of men in shorts, tee-shirts and trainers handling dangerous goods.

Risks associated with carriage of dangerous goods could be recognised, assessed, and minimised to acceptable levels; but this assumes the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code is followed by cargo interests, and the port and ship are suitably equipped, and personnel adequately trained.

He said that the Code has been mandatory for over 10 years – it comprised two volumes, each almost one inch thick, and a supplement. “The sheer size of the Code and the need to be familiar with it could be a deterrent to it being used.

“The majority of the Code applies to tasks done ashore by ‘cargo interests’ not on board the ship! They can be thousands of miles away, inland. Empty containers may have residues – they are still dangerous goods containers.”

We have shippers using their own names or creating names for the goods they are shipping. It could be a commercial name or goods they advertise, but it is not the proper shipping name. it can be difficult to spot whether it is a dangerous item, but that is the whole idea.

Most common dangerous goods exported from Asia were flammable liquids – paint, lacquer, varnish, cosmetics, and perfume.  Toxic substances included pesticides and degreasers.  Corrosive substances included dye chemicals for the textile trade.

There have been some cargoes declared as telephone parts, when they were ion batteries that were hazardous because they could overheat.

Among other problem factors, shore planner container loading software might be different from shipboard software. The shore load plan might require manual checking by the shore planner.

Some carriers had in-house policies which differed from or added to the requirements of the dangerous goods code. Shipboard staff might not have time to check containers ashore properly before loading.

Mr Wilson said: “It only takes one of these containers to heat up, catch fire, explode and lead to a catastrophic scenario.” He referred to an incident where release of CO2 into a cargo hold failed to extinguish the fire, and 400 containers were damaged.

He urged the insurance industry to consider increasing its lobbying of governments and the International Maritime Organization.

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