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Seaborne nickel ore trade still a deadly ‘game of Russian roulette’

Summary:
“Carrying solid bulk cargoes involves serious risks, which must be managed carefully to safeguard the crew and the ship. These risks include reduced ship stability (and even capsizing) due to cargo liquefaction; fire or explosion due to chemical hazards; and damage to ship structures due to poor loading procedures.” — The opening paragraph of the introduction of Carrying Solid Bulk Cargoes Safely guide, published in 2013 by UK classification society Lloyd’s Register, in association with the UK P&I Club and Intercargo, the trade association for dry bulk shipowners and operators. A suspected case of cargo liquefaction may have indirectly claimed the life of one seafarer on Friday, July 17, 2015, aboard the 2007-built Supramax Alam Manis in the northern Philippines, just six months after the same phenomenon claimed 19 souls on a Supramax carrying bauxite. In this latest incident, the one fatality occurred during a rescue operation and the victim — the first officer — died of a heart attack, and  it could be argued that a traumatic rescue was a contributory factor to his death. It seems like we are hearing and reading more about cargo liquefaction these days, even though the subject has been known among shipowners, classification societies, cargo interests and marine insurers for at least three decades.

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“Carrying solid bulk cargoes involves serious risks, which must be managed carefully to safeguard the crew and the ship. These risks include reduced ship stability (and even capsizing) due to cargo liquefaction; fire or explosion due to chemical hazards; and damage to ship structures due to poor loading procedures.” — The opening paragraph of the introduction of Carrying Solid Bulk Cargoes Safely guide, published in 2013 by UK classification society Lloyd’s Register, in association with the UK P&I Club and Intercargo, the trade association for dry bulk shipowners and operators.

A suspected case of cargo liquefaction may have indirectly claimed the life of one seafarer on Friday, July 17, 2015, aboard the 2007-built Supramax Alam Manis in the northern Philippines, just six months after the same phenomenon claimed 19 souls on a Supramax carrying bauxite.

In this latest incident, the one fatality occurred during a rescue operation and the victim — the first officer — died of a heart attack, and  it could be argued that a traumatic rescue was a contributory factor to his death.

It seems like we are hearing and reading more about cargo liquefaction these days, even though the subject has been known among shipowners, classification societies, cargo interests and marine insurers for at least three decades.

This is also despite provisions in the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) convention, which includes rules about the loading of dry bulk minerals cargoes designed to safeguard against liquefaction.

Cargo liquefaction occurs in dry bulk cargoes when they suddenly start to behave more like liquids and shift in the holds of ships with potentially catastrophic results. Cargoes with excessive moisture content and a high percentage of fines materials are especially vulnerable. Throw in a tempest at sea and the risk increases exponentially; but even a calm sea voyage and the ordinary movement and vibrations of a ship can trigger liquefaction if a cargo is excessively wet and exceeds the maximum flow moisture content for the cargo type under the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes code.

In early January, the Bulk Jupiter, a 10-year old Supramax dry bulk carrier, sank off the coast of Indonesia, three days into a voyage from Malaysia to China, carrying bauxite. While the sinking claimed the lives of 19 seafarers, there was one sole survivor who spoke of events unfolding so fast the crew was unable to do much to save themselves. The account was entirely consistent with an extreme case of cargo liquefaction.

In this case, liquefaction will never be proved because the ship and cargo lie at the bottom of the ocean and will never be salvaged.

Blog post continues below…


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According to some of the leading protection and indemnity associations — the shipowner-owned mutuals that insure the major liability risks associated with ship operations — the incidence of cargo liquefaction in bauxite has been on the increase, especially involving Brazilian cargoes. Yet two years ago, liquefaction in bauxite was virtually unheard of.

But, according to marine insurers and shipping sources, nickel ore is now the biggest source of liquefaction incidents in the international dry bulk trades. Laterite nickel ore cargoes are especially prone because of their high clay contents and the clay’s ability to absorb large amounts of water and become compacted and turn to a slurry-like substance.

In 2013, the maritime website blog gCaptain.com said that owners who send their ships to carry nickel ore “are playing Russian roulette with their ships.”

One practice that can contribute to liquefaction is the common one of storing mineral ore cargoes in the open, exposed to the elements, combined with a general lack of adequate moisture readings and the checking of free-flow characteristics of the cargoes before, during and after loading.

The Alam Manis was carrying nickel ore from the Philippines, where laterite ores are common, to Lianyungang in northeast China.

China’s huge nickel pig iron industry, set up to feed the voracious appetite of the country’s stainless steel producers, was also affected by Indonesia’s mineral ore exports ban. Indonesia had been China’s largest supplier of high-grade nickel ore, and China’s NPI producers stockpiled as much as they could before the ban came into effect and have sourced more nickel ore from the Philippines.

If cargo liquefaction is proven, the surviving crew members of the Alam Manis can consider themselves lucky to be alive. Fortunately, the ship did not sink, which should allow for a proper investigation to determine why the cargo shifted to such an extent.

The investigation may serve to highlight the problem and educate those involved in the handling of such cargoes. It is knowledge that might just prevent the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of seafarers’ lives in the years ahead.

Given the problems of liquefaction have been well-documented, why should it be increasing again? Is it ignorance or cutting corners?

Cargo owners are obliged under international regulations to provide shipowners/operators with a certificate showing that the moisture level is at an acceptable level. But the P&I clubs go further in advising owners and operators to not just take a shippers’ word for it, but to use a superintendent to carry out moisture readings and testing of free-flow characteristics of cargoes before, during and after loading. Shipowners and operators are also advised to take and maintain viable samples from the cargo and send them for independent analysis.

P&I clubs advise owners and operators that every aspect of testing and loading should be personally overseen by the ship’s master and/or first officer to their satisfaction before signing off on bills of lading.

The P&I clubs and Intercargo also advise members to trim the cargoes to all sides of the holds. While this adds time in port and costs, it promotes stability throughout the ship.

Some clubs advise owners and operators to instruct their masters and first officers to be vigilant for signs of free-standing water in cargoes and to suspend loading and conduct further moisture tests if they see puddles.

Market forces at play?

Given the collapse in base metals and stainless steel prices and the corresponding slump in the prices of mineral ore raw materials and weak dry bulk freight rates, could some rogue cargo owners and shipowners and operators be instructing their staff and crews to turn a blind eye to these fundamental safety requirements to cut costs?

According to some estimates, 100-200 seafarers have been killed in suspected cases of cargo liquefaction involving nickel ore over the last five years with cargoes originating in Indonesia, the Philippines and New Caledonia in the southern Pacific. In 2010 alone, 82 Chinese seafarers died on four Chinese-operated ships in cases of suspected nickel ore liquefaction overwhelming the vessels. This death toll exceeds the number of seafarers killed by Somali pirates.

Such a death toll would not be tolerated in nickel mining in the world outside of China, yet the shipping industry, marine insurers and the mining industry appear to be turning a blind eye to the carnage taking place at sea.

The world is awash with excess marine insurance underwriting capacity, keeping premiums low, even for those that make claims. Given insurance claims related to liquefaction are rising, marine underwriters will attempt to raise premiums to penalize claimants, but it is an exercise in futility, because, in the words of one marine insurance expert, “There is always another mug who will do it [take the insurance risk] cheaper.”

There is also too much marine reinsurance capacity, giving the primary underwriters little incentive to raise premiums when they know they can buy reinsurance cheaply.

A few things need to happen. Those concerned with handling and moving such cargoes — from the mines to the ports, at sea and to their final destinations — need to adhere to the safety regulations and the guidelines issued by the P&I clubs. And if that is not enough, the IMO needs to tighten the requirements in the Solas convention even further. But that takes time — three to five years, at least — both to get the IMO to act and for the member flag states to ratify any revisions to a convention.

In most cases, cargo liquefaction is almost entirely avoidable if those involved in the international trade of such cargoes discharge their obligations properly. And if they do, thousands of seafarers might just see their careers through in one piece until they retire.

Barrel Blog
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