South African Maritime Safety Authority, a fire that broke out on board the Liberian flagged APL Austria last month might likely have been as a result of undeclared or misdeclared cargo. Though investigations are ongoing, the suspected cause of the fire was found possibly to be the chemical calcium hypochlorite, which was found stowed under deck in No.4 cargo hold where the fire broke out, with the crew unaware of its presence.
Calcium hypochlorite as a chemical is commonly used to sanitise public swimming pools and disinfect drinking water and is included in domestic cleaning products. According to Steamship Mutual, the chemical has been the cause of many incidents at sea, with 6 large, not to mention expensive, incidents between 1997 and 1999 as well as fires and explosions at several storage facilities. During the 1990s the proportion of calcium hypochlorite carried in containers increased and the manufacturers increased the drum size of ‘bulk’ packages. This resulted in large quantities of calcium hypochlorite being bulk carried in unventilated containers through areas of the world where the ambient temperature was very high.
Since the nineties a few vessels have faced problems as a result of carrying calcium hypochlorite, with Maersk Line banning the carriage of the chemical aboard its vessels in 2015. The problem remains as some misdeclare the product either by calling it calcium chloride, or by using other names entirely like lime chloride, bleaching powder, or Hy-chlor, to name but a few. Global production of calcium hypochlorite for domestic and exports markets is estimated at around 400,000 tonnes per year.
The International Maritime Organization's IMDG Code recommends that all forms of calcium hypochlorite should be carried ‘On Deck Only’, and furthermore this deck cargo should be shaded from direct sunlight, stowed away from any heat sources and should have an adequate air circulation throughout the stow.
The APL Austria, a 72 000 tonne, 280 metre wide cargo vessel, had been some 30 nautical miles south west of Jeffreys Bay when it reported a fire on board on February 12. Shortly thereafter with rescue operations scrambled, she was then redirected overnight back to Port Elizabeth and eventually to her current docking location at the Port of Ngqurha where the crew was evacuated while firefighters battled the blaze. Captain Daron Burgess, a Principal Officer at the SAMSA Southern region office in Port Elizabeth said
“The presence of the chemical was somewhat mysterious as the vessel’s crew was unaware of it as it was not declared as such. The final report by fire experts has not been released yet and so we cannot confirm the cause.
“All damaged containers have been discharged from the vessel and the No.4 cargo hold is now empty and being mopped up. All empty CO2 cylinders (45kg x 444) have been replenished and placed back on board. ”