Beirut blast: Maritime industry failings cannot be overlooked

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Tanya Blake, SAS editor. Credit: IHS Markit

The shipping industry must learn hard lessons from the Beirut explosion about vessel abandonment and stamp out its underlying causes

To date, there have been more than 200 people killed, 5,000 people injured, and an estimated 300,000 people left homeless as a result of the devastating explosion of a port warehouse in Beirut on 4 August 2020, although figures vary and are updated daily.

The blast, caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that sat for six years in the warehouse, would not have happened if the Moldovan-flagged ship Rhosus had not transported the chemicals there. It would not have happened if the vessel had not been in such a poor condition as to be arrested at the Port of Beirut, and later abandoned by the owner.

This was the first in a chain of events that led to the disaster and massive loss of life: multiple failings in the maritime industry, the wider supply chain, and by officials onshore, all played a part. As the investigations into the incident continue, I hope that shipping’s part in the tragedy is not left out or diminished.

While the true ownership of the vessel is hard to pin down – the last listed owner, according to IHS Markit database, was the Briarwood corporation – the former vessel’s crew linked Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin as the “de facto owner”. According to Christos Andreou, a spokesperson for the Cyprus police, Grechushkin had been questioned by police in Cyprus. He is alleged to have abandoned the vessel after it was detained by port state control for safety defects and refusing to pay docking fees and the salaries of its crew. Yet the issue extends far beyond one shipowner and into the foundations of the entire shipping industry.

For those of us that know shipping, this story of vessel and crew abandonment is nothing new. The International Labour Organisation’s database of abandonment of seafarers shows that there were 31 vessels reported as abandoned in 2019 and 26 reported cases of abandonment at the time of writing in September 2020. These are just the official numbers. Each abandoned vessel poses environmental and safety risks, not to mention the wellbeing risks for crew left on board.

How many incidents of abandonment can be linked to owners that use open registries, or the more derogatory but perhaps more fitting term, flags of convenience? I would assume the majority.

Some may argue that the fact Rhosus was detained in Beirut is an example of the checks and balances of shipping working; an unsafe vessel was stopped from sailing. I would argue the fact that the owner was able to abandon the vessel and its crew without comeuppance is a sign that there are too many loopholes on our own checks and balances. We need to delve deeper into the roots of how we as an industry are set-up to resolve these fundamental issues: how can we allow unsafe vessels with dangerous cargo to continue sailing? How can unscrupulous owners wantonly abandon crew and their ships with little to no consequence?

Incidents like this give shipping a well-earned bad name – we are exposed as a dangerous industry and a bad employer to boot. No industry should allow its workers’ rights and safety regulations to be flouted and then hide behind the weak argument that it is just a ‘few bad apples’ creating the problem. We must do more.

All abandonment cases have real human and environmental consequences. The Beirut explosion shows us just how severe those consequences can be. Resolving this issue will not be easy and could mean an overhaul of regulation at the international, United Nations, and International Maritime Organization (IMO) level, the tightening of scrutiny on shell companies, an overhaul of flags and the Paris memorandum of understanding, and the efficacy of vessel detentions.

Rhosus had been detained in several different ports with numerous deficiencies before it was abandoned in Beirut. Since 2006, it was inspected a few times per year and deficiencies, ranging from unsafe working and living conditions, engine problems, hull corrosion, to issues with navigational equipment, were found at every inspection, according to historical IHS Markit data.

Despite this track record, it got documentation certifying it was safe to continue its fateful journey to Beirut. Now is the time to stamp out practices that put crew and vessel safety and the environment at risk, and sadly in the case of Beirut, has led to the loss of thousands of lives.