The transportation of dangerous goods or hazardous cargo is a volatile subject which has been thrust into the limelight due to the recent spate of accidents on board ships transporting these goods. While the shipping fraternity is aware of the meticulous procedures that should be followed during the transportation of DG/HC, it is imperative that we, the ‘hoi polloi’ gain a clearer understanding of it. Iqram Cuttilan, Chairman of Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents (CASA) broached the controversial subject in the following interview.

Q: What’s the overall percentage related to the transportation of DG / HC?  

As a percentage, it is difficult to indicate an approximate amount but there is a significant number classified as hazardous or dangerous being transported by sea. For instance, cargo such as wood in its natural state is considered non-dangerous good, but introduce it to fire and its flammable nature comes to the fore.

Q: What is the procedure followed by shipping agents in Sri Lanka?

In the case of loading hazardous cargo, when a booking inquiry is made, the exporter or shipper has to provide information of the cargo and submit the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of the specified cargo.

The material safety data sheet (MSDS) is a compulsory document which contains information on how the cargo should be packed, stored, transported and the measures to be taken in case of an emergency as well as reaction to various materials viz cause combustion etc.

Thereafter the shipping agent will provide this information in a particular format as required by the shipping line, attaching the MSDS and send it to the shipping line which has a specified Dangerous Cargo Handling Desk (DCHD).  The DCHD will in turn inform if it is acceptable or non-acceptable to be loaded on a vessel that particular line operates. If the vessel is being operated by another line, this information is submitted to the DCHD of the operating line and approval is requested.

Additionally the hazardous cargo request is sent to the Port of Destination, Port of Transshipment as well all the ports which the vessel calls enroute to the TS port of destination port. Approval is sought from these ports for the cargo to be discharged, TS or be in transit as the case may be.

The reason for this is that certain ports have very strict hazardous cargo policies. What is permitted to be in transit at one port may not be permitted in another port. Hence to avoid any issues the request is sent to all ports and approval obtained.

For instance, If I am representing Line A, I will send the request to the Dangerous Cargo Desk of the Principal of Line A. If Line A is planning to operate the vessel, then it is a straightforward procedure. Since we are working in through alliances /consortia, the cargo maybe loaded on a vessel of Line B. Therefore the DCHD of Line A will forward the request to the DCHD of Line B requesting their approval. Upon their approval the green light is given to board the ship accordingly.

Thus, the acceptance of cargo is strict administered specifically pertaining to DG/HC. Information is given in advance to the vessel and the ship planner to make arrangements for stowage on board the particular ship.

DG/HC cargo is stored at a special stowage location, segregated from the normal cargo in a specific area with easy accessibility in the event of an accident.

Thereafter, once it is loaded all the ports the vessel is calling and the final destination the port have access to the necessary information. There is an information flow right throughout that this particular cargo is on board the ship. Every stake holder is kept informed and the process incurs paying meticulous attention to detail.

When the cargo arrives to Sri Lanka either to be discharged, in transit or being transshipped, a Dangerous Cargo Declaration (DCD) is provided to the SL Ports Authority Safety Section which contains all necessary information pertaining to the DG/HC. Thereafter the Safety Section peruses the document and makes the decision to either grant permission or not grant permission for the specified cargo to enter the port.

Q: What is the shipping agents role in this function?

The agent acts as the facilitator in disseminating information which he has received to the authorities and various parties concerned on the arrival of a vessel with any hazardous cargo.  The agent is not the originator of the information but a mediator.

Q: At the event of an emergency, what is the action taken?

With regard to any issues that may involve leakage on board the ship, the Master informs the shipping line and the Agent at the next Port of Call. Thereby, arrangements are made to attend to stop the leak on board the vessel if it is possible or discharge the container at the particular port for the cargo to be reworked either by removing the leaking barrel/drum and allowing the rest of the cargo to remain in the container and continue on its voyage, or destuff the entire load of cargo in the container and stuff it into another container after removing the leaking/damage barrels/drums.

Q: Are accidents caused due to the transport of DG a rare occurrence?

Cargo leaking in containers is a regular occurrence which is mainly due to the bad packing, stuffing, handling or lashing. At times this can also happen due to the vessels rolling and pitching during its voyage as a result of bad weather which results in the cargo inside the container shifting from side to side and damaging the barrels/drums.

Accidents on board tankers/bulk carriers too occur.

The issue of the spillage occurring at sea is that the vessel crew do not have the facility to attend to the leak due to the stowage of the container, accessibility to the container or even expertise in dealing with specific types of cargo. Hence shore assistance is required to deal with such adversities.

Q: What are your views regarding the most recent catastrophe on board the ‘Xpress Pearl’?

It is a very unfortunate situation for the whole vessel to catch fire and be destroyed.

In this particular instance, when the Master and crew observed the leaking container, they tried to discharge the container at the next ports of call. Unfortunately the specific ports namely, Hamad and Hazira were unable to handle the container due to various reasons. Colombo was the next port of call after Hamad and Hazira, and the Agent was notified only a few hours before the vessel arrived at the anchorage of the Port of Colombo. The agents had notified the Safety Section of the SLPA of the leak.

From the news reports it was mentioned that after the inspection of the SLPA Team the next day, a fire broke out onboard. Initially the ship’s crew tried to douse the fire with the equipment and facilities on board. They were initially successful but when the fire erupted again, shore assistance was sought. SLPA Tugs were mobilized to support the efforts to extinguish the fire. The strong winds and the incremental weather exacerbated the situation, causing the flames to ignite.

All efforts by the SLPA emergency services as well as other parties who were deployed to extinguish the fire proved futile due to the severity of the fire and the strong winds. Whilst tremendous efforts were deployed, the raging inferno could not be quelled.

Q: What are some of the hypothetical causes for such calamities?

Shippers/Exporters are required to abide by the IMDG regulations when packing/stuffing/loading hazardous cargo.

There could be instances when the exporters use packing material which are of inferior quality to pack DG which when subjected to the rolling and pitching of the vessel at high seas can cause breakage of packing spillage, friction, thereby igniting a fire.

Another possible cause would be the non-declaration of hazardous cargo by the exporter in order to avoid paying higher freight rates which is charged for the carriage of hazardous cargo.

This results in calamities of this nature – risking lives and property.

Q: As you perceive, what are the lessons we can learn from these hazards?

We need to act immediately to ensure that the proper declaration process is followed and adopted at the Port of Loading. In addition, survey companies should monitor the packing process from inception, with additional safety precautions being followed and the rules of transporting DG implemented by IMO adhered to at all times. This will be a step forward in avoiding severe calamities in future.

Yet, if it does occur, we need to respond accordingly and be vigilant and cover all aspects from the emergency responses to the legal proceedings and stop causing a frenzy and losing our credibility. Instead we should handle these occurrences professionally.

Q: What is the preemptive action necessary to prevent accidents of this nature?

More often than not, the owners of the cargo know more about the dangerous goods than the transporter, good communication between exporters and importers is essential to safely transport goods that are dangerous in nature.

It is also why we need a code of conduct, conventions and governing bodies such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to regulate the transportation of goods in order to keep safe from pollution or loss of lives.

Q: What do you wish to convey to the authorities?

As an industry – if we are promoting Sri Lanka as a Maritime hub, we have to enhance the facilities in handling emergencies which should be on par with international standards with continues training as emergencies do occur on a regular basis at other ports as well and the manner in which we can combat these outbursts are to be prepared.

It is also critical to be congruent with the IMO conventions by updating laws and requirements, while formulating a dedicated team together with the private sector in a PPE to deal proactively with emergency situations. Moreover, the compensations and investments received can be utilized in a constructive manner towards emergency response enhancement.


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About Rochelle Gunaratne

I believe that everyone has a story to tell and in turn, I love listening to those stories, attempting to paint a picture to my readers with my words. I may not be an artist or painter, but I believe words can create powerful images in ones mind and it is how we share our stories with others.
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