The X-Press Pearl fire has highlighted the continuing problem of ship fires caused by the mishandling of dangerous goods, international transport and logistics insurer TT Club noted.
The Singapore-registered container ship had been carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals and cosmetics, when it caught fire near on May 20.
Many of the ship’s 1,486 containers tumbled into the sea near the Port of Colombo before the huge blaze, which burned for two weeks, was put out earlier this week.
Part of the hull has now settled on the seabed and Sri Lankan authorities are preparing for an oil spill which experts fear could devastate nearby marine life and beaches.
The X-Press Pearl’s sad fate is the latest in a recent and persistent catalogue of container ship fires of varying degrees of severity, which occur on an almost weekly basis.
The vast majority of these fires are initiated by a cargo of hazardous nature, with one estimate putting the number of mis- or undeclared dangerous cargoes in excess of 150,000 containers a year.
While still to be fully investigated, the catalyst for the inferno on the X-Press Pearl has been asserted to be a leakage of nitric acid, which was correctly declared but apparently incorrectly packaged or packed.
An avid campaigner for reducing these life-threatening, cargo and ship damaging, environmentally impactful and highly costly events, TT Club has promoted awareness and wider use of the IMO/ILO/UNECE Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (the CTU Code).
It also seeks changes in regulatory requirements to improve the clarity, application, implementation and enforcement of mandatory regulations, including the International Maritime Dangerous Goods code.
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 a 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.”
He added that above all “truth, trust and transparency must guide all involved”.
To help guide the industry, TT Club organised a series of webinars earlier this year that cover all aspects of container ship fires.
Additionally fundamental framework guidance for cargo packing is found in the CTU Code, which TT Club strives to have better understood and utilised.
In line with this, TT Club has embarked with fellow members of the Cargo Integrity Group to produce the ‘CTU Code – Quick Guide’ and ‘Container Packing Checklist’ to enable easier reference to the code.
It has already been translated and made available in four of the official six UN languages with he remaining translations of the quick guide to be published soon.
Storrs-Fox noted that it is a significant challenge to have all those responsible for the safe dispatch of general cargo to follow the CTY Code, particularly when done on behalf of other parties and disconnected from transport risks.
“While supply chains are complex and the hazards are numerous, relevant knowledge and guidance are critical, within a control environment that must include effective inspection and enforcement regimes,” he added.
Dangerous goods are subject to mandatory regulation, although Storrs-Fox said that in the case of the X-Press Pearl fire there is another element to the problem.
He explained: “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.”