Given the potential risk to the safety of the vessel and crew, members should insist on obtaining proper documentation prior to carrying certain cargoes. The incident reported below is worthy of note.
One of Gard's shipowner members recently had one of its general cargo vessels, which was on a time charter, ordered to India to load a cargo described as “harmless bulk mill scale with a moisture content of 4.5 per cent”. The shippers provided a certificate showing a moisture content close to 4.5 per cent. The shipowners prudently appointed surveyors to inspect the cargo during loading. The surveyors took samples of the cargo and analysis indicated a moisture content of around 5-6 per cent. The surveyors described the cargo as free-flowing in nature and, given the master's doubts as to whether the cargo was one which may liquefy, so-called "can tests" were performed. Such tests are prescribed by the Code of Safe Practice for Solid Bulk Cargoes – the BC Code1 and involve the striking against a hard surface of a can half filled with the cargo. The tests on this occasion showed no apparent liquefaction or presence of moisture on the surface of the cargo.
Despite the "can test" results, the shipowners were justifiably concerned, given the well-known dangers that cargo liquefaction can cause to the safety of the vessel and crew, notably with regards to ship's stability.2 Owners' concerns were compounded by a lack of documentation from the shipper. Owners' enquiries suggested that the cargo was to be considered an iron concentrate falling into Group A of the BC Code. The BC Code defines a Group A cargo as one which may liquefy if shipped at a moisture content in excess of its “transportable moisture limit” (TML). The TML is the maximum moisture content of a cargo deemed safe for carriage by sea in ships other than "specially designed ships". It is defined as 90 per cent of the cargo's flow moisture point (FMP) which in turn is defined by the BC Code as the percentage moisture content at which a flow state develops. Owners' enquiries also revealed that a number of ships carrying iron ore concentrate/fines from Indian ports had encountered severe difficulties as a result of cargo liquefaction3 and that some shippers could not be relied upon to provide proper and accurate BC Code documentation.
The owners took up their concerns with the charterers and refused to sail the ship to her next load port (to load a further quantity of a similarly described cargo) or to issue bills of lading for the cargo already loaded. The charterers' and sub-charterers' initial response was that the cargo had been exported numerous times previously and that the shipowners' demands for documentation were an unnecessary complication. The sub-charterers did then provide a cargo specification document, but that said nothing about the FMP or TML and contained nothing to suggest that it was a cargo which may liquefy. Advice was sought from cargo experts who identified a reliable analysis laboratory in India. Owners then called for joint sampling and analysis of the cargo already on the vessel and the cargo due to be loaded at the second port. The analysis confirmed that the cargo had a TML of 7-7.5 per cent and angle of repose of 41 degrees. The cargo was therefore considered safe to carry, subject to trimming in accordance with the BC Code.4 However, the shippers still did not provide the documentation and declaration required by the BC Code5 and failed to acknowledge that the cargo was a Group A cargo, as evidenced by the FMP/TML analysis result.
Over a week passed without further documentation from the shippers/charterers, until they provided a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), together with another document declaring a cargo moisture content. Neither document referred to the FMP or TML and under a section headed "Maritime Transportation" the MSDS stated the words "not available". Meanwhile, owners were coming under increasing pressure to sail, with a reported threat of legal action by the port, seemingly concerned with congestion. However, owners stood firm. Several days later the shippers finally provided an MSDS incorporating a reference to Group A of the BC Code, together with certificates (from a reliable laboratory) confirming an acceptable FMP and TML. The vessel then sailed and eventually reached her destination, discharging her cargo without further incident.
The shipowners' stance in this matter is to be applauded, especially given the potential risk to the safety of the vessel and crew. Owners were very prudent to organise their own sampling and analysis of the cargo, even though the shippers' own documentation eventually confirmed that the cargo was safe to be carried. Of course, it would probably have been better not to load the cargo before the proper BC Code documentation was provided. There are always lessons to be learnt and fortunately in this case the only harm was the loss of some time and money.
1 More specifically, section 8 of the 2004 edition.
2 See article "Shifting solid bulk cargoes" in Gard News issue No. 150.
3 See Gard Loss Prevention Circular No. 10-07, "Loading of iron ore fines in India".
4 Section 5.
5 Section 4.
Gard News 193, February/April 2009
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