Beirut Explosion Underscores the Perils of Vessel Abandonment
By Benjamin Merrell
As more information has emerged it appears that the source of the recent explosions in Beirut, Lebanon was a shipment of ammonium nitrate which was abandoned at the port 6 years ago. This disaster brings even more misfortune to a country struggling under a severe financial crisis as well as the COVID – 19 pandemic while it also underscores the potential dangers posed by vessel abandonment, a major and under-publicized issue in the marine transport industry.
News reports following the explosion, which occurred on August 04th, have confirmed that the blast, which left at least 220 dead, was caused by the detonation of 2750mt of Ammonium Nitrate, a common ingredient in fertilizer. While initially unclear, subsequent reporting has seemed to confirm that the source of the ammonium nitrate was the MV Rhosus, a handysize general cargo ship constructed in 1986, which was abandoned by the vessel owner Igor Grechuskin in late 2013. Following the vessel’s abandonment, it appears that the cargo was transferred to onshore facilities where it languished for 6 years until August 04th 2020, when an unknown source caused it to detonate.
Since the explosion Lebanon’s government has fallen amid widespread protests as Beirut residents have raised a furor over who is to blame for the unsafe storage conditions of such a dangerous cargo. Ammonium nitrate has a long history of causing disasters, both on land and at sea, including several disasters within the last several years. In 2015 a store of ammonium nitrate was responsible for an explosion at the port of Tianjin, China claiming the lives of 173 people. The scenes from the disaster in Tianjin are eerily similar to those in Beirut and according to the Chinese Government’s official inquiry was caused by AN being stored illegally.
The MV Chesire provides a further example of the potential dangers of this type of cargo. In 2014 the vessel was carrying a shipment of 50 000mts of AN-based fertilizer on a run to Thailand when, on August 14th, the shipment underwent decomposition, rising in temperature and emitting billowing clouds of toxic gas. Ultimately, the vessel’s crew evacuated and the fertilizer onboard burned for 2 weeks until all of the potential fuel had been exhausted. The aforementioned examples are just two of many which reinforce the importance of maintaining proper safety procedures around this type of cargo.
While it will likely take a long time to ascertain who is to blame for the unsafe storage conditions at the Beirut warehouse, the fact that the cargo was present in Beirut at all can be attributed to the irresponsible shipowner who abandoned it. Ultimately, the case of the MV Rhosus is representative of a problem which afflicts many crews each year. According to the ILO (International Labour Organization) database on abandoned vessels / crew, in 2018 there were 366 cases of vessels abandoned by the owners, leaving their crew in a precarious situation. Typically the victims of these abandonments are the seafarers aboard the vessel who may be owed wages by the owner and may also face great difficulty repatriating. In severe cases once the ship’s stores are exhausted, abandoned crew members must rely on charity or local social services to provide food and fresh water until their situation is sorted out by the local authorities.
According to the vessel’s former master, Boris Prokoshev, the MV Rhosus was originally intended to discharge her cargo in Mozambique however the vessel’s owner did not have the funds to transit the Suez canal and so attempted to load additional cargo in Beirut. Due to it’s age and poor condition the vessel was unable to load this cargo and, out of funds, the owner abandoned both cargo and crew at the port. The master and 3 other crew members were compelled by the Lebanese authorities to remain onboard the vessel until the port dues owed by the shipowner had been payed (Must check this there is some conflicting reports). Without financial resources or any support from the owner, the crew were forced to continue maintaining the vessel unpaid, aware that it was carrying potentially explosive cargo. Eventually, the master sold some of the fuel remaining onboard and hired lawyers who managed to obtain permission for the crews to repatriate on compassionate grounds. While this is where many stories of vessel abandonment end, in the case of the MV Rhosus because of the local government and for reasons which have yet to be fully understood, this abandonment resulted in a much more tragic outcome.
The IMO and ILO have guidelines related to claims involving seafarer abandonment, however these types of situations often raise regulatory and jurisdictional questions for the local authorities. Lacking financial resources, affected seafarers are often unable to obtain legal representation and so are at the mercy of potentially slow and inefficient local bureaucracies.
Given the global outrage over the Beirut explosion, the way vessel abandonment is handled may change as this disaster has revealed the potentially disastrous consequences of entrusting dangerous cargo to local authorities. In areas where there may be widespread corruption or a weak regulatory framework the dangers posed by vessel abandonment increase as we’ve seen demonstrated by the disaster in Beirut. While the changes which will be brought about by this catastrophe are still being determined, the hope is that at least in Lebanon it will lead to an outcome which is safer for everyday people.
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