Dangerous goods at sea.

There is an old saying suggesting a little white lie won’t hurt anything. It’s an old saying, but not a correct one. If I ask you to pick up a bag of cheese danish (my personal favorite) to bring to me, you would be angry if the bakery gave you a bag of rattlesnakes instead, wouldn’t you? You bet you’d be angry. Whether you are transporting a bag of cheese danish or a bag of rattlesnakes would make a difference in how you would transport, handle, and stow the bag because your life is on the line.

The last figure I recall on the percentage of dangerous goods on container vessels is about 10% of the TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent) count. Shippers who declare dangerous goods as anything other than what they are shipping is handing the vessel and its crew a bag of rattlesnakes. According to ‘The Maritime Executive’ (https://www.maritime-executive.com) 27% of reported serious incidents on board container ships were attributed to cargo not appropriately declared by the shipper.

Why declaring dangerous goods properly matters is to help reduce risk to the crew, the vessel, and the cargo aboard the vessel. Knowing what is in each container guides the load plan for the vessel and what firefighting tools should be on board.  The methods to extinguish a fire such as wood are not the same as they would be for a flammable chemical fire. Moreover, if the shore load planners and the vessels master are aware of a containerized dangerous commodity, they would endeavor to load it in a place it could be dealt with in the quickest manner possible. Sometimes the solution is to contain the fire and let it burn itself out. If the commodity isn’t declared properly and the dangerous commodity ends up buried in the middle of a stack, it can be almost impossible to get access to.

The latest major tragic example showing the perils of what onboard emergencies can mean to a vessel and crew is the Maersk Honam’s fire on March 06, 2018. At least four lives were sadly lost. At the time of this writing, the ship remains almost stationary off the coast of Muscat, Oman and is said to be under towage. Whether misdeclared dangerous goods were a contributing factor to the onboard fire has yet to be determined. There hasn’t been much in the news as of late about the Honam and freight owners are understandably angry about the lack of communication from Maersk. Cargo owners shouldn’t hold their breath.

Since General Average (GA) was declared on March 09, 2018 there has been an effective news blackout on the Honam. Much has to happen before cargo owners get their hands on their containers. Once salvage teams satisfy a port that there is no further risk of fire or other danger, the ship will eventually be towed to a port for discharge of cargo to begin. Once the salvage operation has separated the undamaged containers it will be time for the uninsured shippers to get their checkbook out.

Since I am in no way an expert in the field, the following is up for correction by people smarter than me. Each uninsured shipper whose cargo was not damaged will be getting a bill from the ocean carrier. The bill will represent the cash deposit to be paid to the line by the shipper for the release of the freight. Uninsured shippers unable to pay the deposit could even be sued. Considering the extent of damaged containers I don’t expect the deposits to be small and will likely be up to the C&F (cost and freight) value of their particular shipment. There are two portions of shipper liability that must be satisfied, the salvage portion and the GA which can take a very long time, even years, to come up with a final calculation.

Eventually, shippers who pay their deposit will receive their undamaged shipments. Sometime after in the not so near future, the shippers will receive notice from a maritime law practitioner informing the of the salvage settlement cost and how much it means for their particular undamaged shipment. In the event the shipper accepts the settlement amount, their deposit would be used to pay their portion of the settlement with the option of having any unapplied deposit returned to them. If there are any funds left over from the accepted salvage settlement I wouldn’t go spend it anytime soon.

Later, round two will be the GA portion for the shipper to burden. This is a difficult time for many shippers. If your cargo is impacted due to GA related to the Maersk Honam or any other GA event, garnering guidance from a maritime attorney early in the process is highly recommended, anything less than an expert in the process would be doing yourself a disservice. There are claims against the carrier, or others, to be thought about measured against the GA liability that must be considered. Whatever you do don’t let what I, or anyone else who isn’t a maritime attorney, writes on Linkedin or other blogs, guide you. Many of us are people that work in industries, next to industries, that are next to where your advice should come from.

Over the years I have seen shippers play it fast and loose with commodity descriptions, weight declarations, and cargo values. Each shipper has their own personal reason for getting cute with their descriptions. Most of the time the reason is traced back to money. Shippers have a legal obligation to comply with the IMDG (International Maritime Dangerous Goods) and SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) codes, not doing so can quite literally cost lives. As a shipper, if you decide to ignore the IMDG or SOLAS codes to save yourself a dollar or two, it’s similar to saying you value that amount of money more than jeopardizing the lives of the people who handle your cargo and the lives of mariners at sea.