Intercargo and Isle of Man call for review of fertiliser ‘non-hazardous’ cargo status

Smoke billowing from Cheshire. Credit: Sasemar/Gonzalo Mendez Blasco
Smoke billowing from Cheshire. Credit: Sasemar/Gonzalo Mendez Blasco

Dry cargo shipowners’ body Intercargo has backed a call from the Isle of Man Ship Registry for a review of the current classification of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers as non-hazardous cargoes.

Intercargo, which was responding to a report issued by the registry on the casualty suffered by the Bibby Line bulker Cheshire after its fertiliser cargo began decomposing off the Canary Islands in August last year, generating spectacular plumes of smoke.

The 23 people aboard the 56,597-dwt vessel, which was on its way from Norway to Thailand, had to be evacuated and the overheated vessel left to drift unmanned for several days before salvors were able to get a tow line to it and bring it finally into the Spanish port of Motril.

The Isle of Man Ship Registry said that, in the light of what had happened to Cheshire and its cargo, the categorisation of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers (ANBFs) as non-hazardous cargo appeared to be “misleading”.

It recommended that the International Maritime Organisation change the designation of ANBFs from “non-hazardous” to “not otherwise classified”.

Intercargo noted that, under the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code (IMSBCC) ANBFs are currently in category C, as opposed to group A (cargoes that do not liquefy) and group B (cargoes not presenting chemical hazards).

“It is clear from this incident that this cargo, or at least some of the ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers shipped as this cargo, should not be treated as group C,” it said. “It is Intercargo’s hope that future work at the IMO will lead to correct designation and description of this cargo within the IMSBC code, thus furthering the safer carriage of cargoes and safer voyages.”

Intercargo opposes other recommendation in the report, however. These concern the provision of specialist equipment aboard vessels carrying ANBFs, the monitoring of cargo atmosphere by the crew and the development of specific ship and cargo procedures for the handling and transportation of ANBFs.

“It is Intercargo’s strong opinion that the additional precautions which are being called upon to be the responsibility of the vessel, ought to be unnecessary if the cargo is group C,” the organisation said.

“The IMSBC Code, which is mandatory under SOLAS, stipulates that the shipper should provide the vessel with all the appropriate information that enable cargo to be carried safely. It is Intercargo’s belief that accurate cargo information, provided by the shipper, is the cornerstone for the safe carriage of bulk cargoes.”

The Isle of Man Ship Registry report argued, however, that it was in the industry’s interest to avoid ANBF decomposition “at any stage of the handling and transportation process”.

“Should a decomposition event commence, a swift, knowledgeable, well-equipped response is key to arresting the process,” it said.

In the case of Cheshire, it said that the vessel carried no special equipment to enable it to deal with an occurrence of cargo decomposition and was not required to do so.

In the event, however, the 2012-built vessel suffered such extensive structural damage as a result of the unchecked decomposition of its cargo that it was declared a constructive total loss.

The report does not provide an explanation of the cause of the start of the decomposition process but notes that the indications were that it began in cargo hold 4 where atmosphere readings had shown abnormal variations at an early stage in the voyage.

The IMO issued a circular in September last year warning shipowners to exercise “extreme care” in the handling of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers and to take “appropriate action” if decomposition occurred.

Bibby Line said that it thought that the report’s findings had been “timely, thorough and fair”; adding, “We welcome the suggestions made by the report and will be pleased to participate in further discussions on this matter within the industry.”