May 15, 2014

Overstating the case: The Maritime Maisie affair

One is not really surprised that shipowners and insurers decried the denial of a port of refuge to the chemical tanker ‘Maritime Maisie’ for over three months before South Korea took her in. Even the International Chamber of Shipping claimed to be dismayed by this.

But honestly, what does anyone expect when maritime incidents threaten the health of large populations in port cities or coastlines? As far as I am concerned, the fact that the vessel was finally given refuge by South Korea after the situation stabilised a hundred days or so after she first caught fire should be the end of the story.

Quick rewind. At the end of last year, the 44,000 dwt ‘Maritime Maisie’ collided with the car carrier ‘Gravity Highway’ and caught fire just outside the South Korean port of Busan. The ship was carrying 29,337 tons of inflammable chemicals; 4,000 tons of paraxylene and acrylonitrile burned in the fire, according to media reports. The crew were evacuated and port authorities sent the ship out with tugs into the Sea of Japan, where she drifted, eventually for a hundred days, even though the fire was put out relatively quickly. Lloyd’s surveyors could only board her in March to assess the damage. She was eventually brought into Ulsan towards the end of April and her cargo successfully transferred.

So why did the Maritime Maisie spend three months adrift at sea?

In one word, acrylonitrile. Not only is it highly flammable and toxic, it undergoes explosive polymerisation. Burning acrylonitrile gives off hydrogen cyanide, which is why it is classed as Class 2B carcinogen- it causes lung cancer. This is some of the stuff that was burning on the Maisie, out of the almost 30,000 tonnes of inflammable chemicals that she carried.

Can you blame South Korea, in whose waters the incident took place, or Japan- into whose waters the Maisie drifted- for refusing refuge? Which politician will want to be blamed for exposing his country’s population to carcinogens when the alternative- a ship drifting offshore- is safer, both health-wise and politically? Not that- despite some panicky reports during the three months- the ship was ever in imminent danger of sinking; she was under tow and being monitored almost constantly.

Some shipping experts- mainly those with commercial interests- seem to be keen, now that the story is almost over, to express disgust and dismay at what they see as another case of the refusal by coastal authorities to grant refuge to stricken ships. They see this behaviour as against international conventions or law. They are already comparing the Maritime Maisie to everything from the Prestige to the Stolt Valor to the MSC Flamina incidents.

Part of the industry would like to pressurise governments to push the obligations coastal states have towards stricken vessels. Some will play politics with the Maritime Maisie. But the fact is that no lives were endangered by the South Korean or Japanese hesitation to grant refuge to the ship. The immediate danger to large populations was averted and the only risk was environmental damage- surely the lesser evil here. In any case, no environmental disaster occurred; the calculated risk paid off. 

So, although I agree that some countries have acted extremely irresponsibly- even criminally irresponsibly- in some cases in the past when it comes to granting refuge to stricken ships, I am convinced that the Maritime Maisie affair is not one of those cases.


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