X-Press Pearl fire highlights ongoing risks surrounding the mishandling of hazardous cargoes

The events still unfolding at an anchorage off Colombo underline the continuing problem of ship fires caused by the mishandling of dangerous goods, according to shipping experts at TT Club.

While an investigation is still ongoing, the catalyst for the fire on the Singaporean Super Eco 2700-class container ship is thought to have been a leakage of nitric acid, which was correctly declared but apparently incorrectly packaged or packed.

The fate of the X-Press Pearl container ship is the most recent of these almost weekly incidents, the vast majority of which are initiated by hazardous cargoes. One estimate puts the number of mis- or undeclared dangerous cargoes in excess of 150,000 containers a year.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s risk management director, said: “Effective review of regulations is to be applauded. Indeed, the latest meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee debated in detail the issue of container ship fires. However, such consideration will not result in speedy change.”

“Holistic industry led initiatives are necessary. An understanding by all the actors in the supply chain of safe packaging, packing, loading and unloading of containers, and of the need for detailed, accurate information of the cargo’s attributes and any potentially hazardous reactions to any eventuality occurring through the entire transit, is necessary. Above all truth, trust and transparency must guide all involved.”

TT Club has been campaigning for some time to reduce these life-threatening, cargo and ship damaging, environmentally impactful and highly costly events. This activity includes promoting awareness and wider use of the IMO/ILO/UNECE Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units – the CTU Code - and seeking changes in regulatory requirements to improve the clarity, application, implementation and enforcement of mandatory regulations, including the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code.

Storrs Fox accepts the significant challenge of having all those responsible for the safe dispatch of general cargo following the CTU Code, particularly when often done on behalf of other parties and disconnected from transport risks. “However,” he says, “dangerous goods are subject to mandatory regulation. In the case of this casualty, we see another element to the problem. The offending cargo was apparently correctly declared, with its relevant properties known, and presumably originating from an experienced shipper. Yet for whatever reason the packaging was inappropriate or the packing and/or securing within the container was insufficient, resulting in a dangerous leakage. While supply chains are complex and the hazards numerous, relevant knowledge and guidance are critical, within a control environment that must include effective inspection and enforcement regimes.”

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