Almost half the crew of the Panamanian-flagged bulker Hong Wei remain missing after the vessel sank in rough weather between Taiwan and the Philippines in an incident which highlights the dangers of high moisture content mineral ore fines. Hong Wei was carrying nickel ore from Indonesia to Dalian port in northeastern China.
It is the second ship in less than a month to come to grief carrying a similar cargo. On 11 November Nasco Diamond sank off the southern coast of Japan with the loss of 21 crewmembers’ lives.
West of England P&I Club has issued a warning to its members regarding carriage of nickel ore.
Problems arise when nickel, as well as iron, ores are stockpiled without adequate cover during the rainy season. Moisture content can reach hazardous levels, well above the transportable moisture limit, TML. The high level of moisture may not be apparent on loading. Give time, and ship’s motion, the cargo can liquify with a resultant free surface effect that can make the vessel unstable enough to capsize within minutes.
The high death toll, more than 30 seafarers in just two incidents, attests to the speed of the catastrophe.
Mining methods may also affect the hazards presented by a cargo. UK P&I Club warns its members: “Concerns have arisen about the safety of cargoes of nickel ore, loaded at Tanjung Buli. These cargoes originate from open cast mining on the Indonesian island of Halmahera and are presented for loading directly from the mine with little or no processing. The consistency of the material is that of a wet mud of finely-divided particles, interspersed with varying proportions of larger rocks. The declared moisture content of these cargoes is in the region of approximately 25% to 35%. In at least one cargo, pools of free water have developed on the cargo surface during loading and during carriage. Because of the method of mining, significant variations in moisture content and physical consistency are likely from cargo to cargo”.
Although cargoes should be covered by shipper certification that the cargo is below the TML in some jurisdictions there is little to support them other than a vivid imagination. Third party certification is desirable but masters who have questioned the safety of cargo to be loaded have been subject to threats and intimidation.
Says Skuld: “It appears that these cargoes are being shipped from several ports without certificates showing the Transportable Moisture Limit, and where provided, the accuracy of certificates showing the TML is, on some occasions, doubtful.
“Unfortunately, we suspect that the certificates of moisture content may also in some cases be inaccurate, because the samples can be taken some time before the vessel loads, and we have seen cargo wetted by rain, which has caused an increase in moisture content”.
London P&I Club brings attention to the use of a ‘can-test’ for an early assessment of likely problems, as prescribed in Section 8 of the BC Code. While a can test can demonstrate that a cargo may be hazardous it will not necessarily indicate that it is safe.
Says the Club: “Two cases handled by the London P&I Club recently emphasise that the previous warnings about nickel ore are likely to remain valid for the foreseeable future.
“In the first case, the Member contacted the Club very soon after receiving orders from a time charterer to load nickel ore in New Caledonia. The Club arranged for an expert to travel to New Caledonia and, with the assistance of the Master, all of the cargo presented for shipment was rejected as unsafe. As there was no realistic prospect in the short term of the cargo drying, the voyage was cancelled.
“In the second case, while loading nickel ore in Indonesia the Master followed the advice to conduct “can tests” and the Member contacted the Club to report the Master’s concerns. With the assistance of the local Correspondent, digital photographs of the can test were sent to an expert in Singapore, who confirmed that the cargo being loaded was very unlikely to be safe for carriage”.