The X-Press Pearl fire underlines the continuing problem of ship fires caused by the mishandling of dangerous goods, says TT Club. According to the insurer, all those involved in the movement of such cargoes need to step up to their responsibilities and should act with transparency and diligence in matters of safety in transport.

The X-Press Pearl’s sad fate is the latest in a persistent catalogue of container ship fires of varying degrees of severity, which occur on an almost weekly basis. According to TT Club, the vast majority of these are initiated by a cargo of a hazardous nature. One estimate puts the number of mis- or undeclared dangerous cargoes in excess of 150,000 containers a year – each of which has disastrous potential.

While still to be fully investigated, the catalyst for the inferno on the X-Press Pearl has been asserted to be a leakage of nitric acid, which was correctly declared, but apparently incorrectly packaged or packed. Firefighting operations continued for thirteen days before the fire was contained. However, the structural damage was so severe by that point, that the ship started sinking. In addition to burning and leaking chemicals and plastic during the fire, the ship is also leaking oil. See video below taken by the Sri Lanka Air Force, for the vessel’s current condition.

Also read: ‘Firefighting standards have not kept pace with container carrying capacity’

CTU Code

TT Club says it has been campaigning for some time to reduce these life-threatening, cargo and ship damaging, environmentally impactful and highly costly events. This activity includes promoting awareness of the IMO/ILO/UNECE Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units – the CTU Code – and have it better understood and utilised. As well as seeking changes in regulatory requirements to improve the clarity, application, implementation and enforcement of mandatory regulations, including the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s Risk Management Director states review of regulations ‘will not result in speedy change’. He stresses that ‘holistic industry led initiatives are necessary. An understanding by all the actors in the supply chain of safe packaging, packing, loading and unloading of containers, and of the need for detailed, accurate information of the cargo’s attributes and any potentially hazardous reactions to any eventuality occurring through the entire transit, is necessary. Above all truth, trust and transparency must guide all involved.’

Storrs-Fox understands the extent of the task: ‘It is a significant challenge to have all those responsible for the safe dispatch of general cargo to follow the CTU Code, particularly when often done on behalf of other parties and disconnected from transport risks. However, dangerous goods are subject to mandatory regulation. In the case of this casualty, we see another element to the problem. The offending cargo was apparently correctly declared, with its relevant properties known, and presumably originating from an experienced shipper. Yet, for whatever reason, the packaging was inappropriate or the packing and/or securing within the container was insufficient, resulting in a dangerous leakage. While supply chains are complex and the hazards numerous, relevant knowledge and guidance are critical, within a control environment that must include effective inspection and enforcement regimes.’

Also read: ‘Coastal States have to grant damaged ships refuge faster’

Picture by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.