A number of fires and explosions on cargo vessels have appeared in recent headlines, and the reason for these disasters is almost always attributed to Dangerous Goods (DG) - or they are suspected as the main culprit. In most instances, that is indeed the case. Take for example the Hanjin Pennsylvania or the MSC Flaminia. But the fact of the matter is the nature of the goods themselves is not the sole cause. Rather, a series of events and external factors likely caused the disaster.
So why am I musing about this? I am just a freight forwarder, and we don’t classify this material, nor do we package it, mark it or label it. That is someone else’s responsibility, right? And if something goes wrong it is their fault, not mine, right? Hardly!
We too bear the responsibility for the safe transport of DG freight, and the safety of others involved in the transportation process (truckers, seafarers, stevedores, etc.) as well as the environment and the general public.
A majority of the time, our freight moves on water. But what about its journey to the vessel? We play a role here too, in trying to make the entire voyage as safe as possible.
How exactly do we do this? We must ensure that we do our job in full compliance with all Federal and International regulations, as well as strict requirements that we enforce as a company. We may need to designate a specifically trained and certified inland or ocean carrier, who exhibits a proven and successful track record. Choosing the correct carrier is vital to ensuring the safe handling and arrival of DG goods.
We also create the documentation to move this freight, so it behooves us to carefully prepare these documents as required. It is imperative that we prepare the documents in accordance with instructions received from the customer, in full compliance with IMDG Code requirements, the requirements of our country - as well as our own internal DG requirements. For example, the IMDG Code does not require the EmS number to show on the transport document. But at BDP, we show this number on our bills of lading since this information could potentially save a life.
We audit every shipment to make sure the document is correctly and accurately prepared. If we see something amiss, you better believe we will do what we can to stop the shipment and fix the problem before we allow the freight to continue its voyage.
Case closed: the world is saved! We did it!
Unfortunately, this is not the reality. The truth is: we are not alone in transporting DG. There are, unfortunately, some companies or individuals that will try to circumvent the regulations, just to save a few dollars.
Does that mean that the existing DG regulations are not sufficient? In my opinion, the existing DG regulations are effective. But there needs to be more government intervention and criminal regulations when companies or individuals mis-declare cargo, do not declare DG, or otherwise ignore regulations. Some countries do take these violations very seriously and prosecute the offenders to the fullest extent. The trouble is that those countries don’t always have the necessary support from their neighbors.
Take for example the vessel Hanjin Pennsylvania: undeclared Dangerous Goods (Calcium Hypochlorite) caused an explosion and fire, causing some containers carrying fireworks to explode. This incident put the ship out of commission and into the scrap yard. The ship was owned by a German company and leased to a Korean shipping line -both countries that aggressively pursue prosecutions. However, the parties responsible for misdeclaration were in China - and to the best of my knowledge, the offenders were never brought to justice.
So what is the solution?
The shipping industry and governments cannot sit back and stay at status quo. As we've seen, this has not worked for the poor innocent victims of past disasters, nor will it work for those that will get hurt or perish in future disasters.
And these future disasters could be much worse than past ones, as ships are getting bigger and bigger, and are carrying more containers than ever, and many of these containers will be carrying Dangerous Goods. Looking at those new “ginormous” XXXL container ships, carrying 20,000 plus TEUs is enough to give me nightmares about ships burning or sinking, doing unspeakable harm to our oceans and land. I do not know about you, but I would like for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have clean beaches and oceans to go to, and enjoy nature the way it was intended to be.
This must be a collective effort: we must cooperate with one another under international regulation. And if and when a disaster occurs, assist in the issuance of international arrest warrants to extradite the responsible parties and bring them to justice. The real solution will come when countries around the world work together on these issues.