Monday, 10 September 2012

Why has the “MSC Flaminia’ caused so much panic?

The ill-fated MSC Flaminia is under tow heading for Germany today, with 13 specialists from UK, France and Germany on board monitoring the mysterious cargo that seems to pose strong danger to the coastlines around the English Channel and the North Sea. Authorities and owners have been tight-lipped, but speculation is rife that possible environmental contamination by chemicals and toxic materials is the reason why the crew abandoned the vessel in the Atlantic after explosions in a hold. The vessel is being escorted in a convoy, with a German coast guard and officials of the Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance Agency on hand.  

Some analysts- particularly Russian journalist Mikhail Voytenko- have been extremely critical of the way the vessel was made to turn and hang around the Atlantic under tow, with countries wary of granting her refuge. They claim that the dangers of the cargo aboard are being hidden from the public.

The German flagged 6750 TEU Flaminia, owned by Reederei NSB, caught fire on 14 July in the mid-Atlantic. One crewmember died, one is missing- presumed dead -while the rest abandoned the vessel; Falmouth Coastguard received the mayday relay. Survivors (5 Germans, 3 Poles, 15 Filipinos and 2 passengers) were picked up by the VLCC ‘DS Crown’. The Flaminia had 2,876 containers aboard when she caught fire, 149 being classed as dangerous as per the IMDG code. She was en route from Charleston, USA and was to arrive at Antwerp on July 17. 

Voytenko later published a full manifest of the MSC Flaminia’s cargo, saying, "MSC Flaminia is actually, a big chemical, toxic and miscellaneous dangerous substances floating bomb. No wonder crew fled the vessel, no wonder EU States fear MSC Flaminia (is) just short of being a nuclear device ready to explode."

Industry watchers say that the incident on the Flaminia is symptomatic of the way the container trade operates. Quick turnarounds, sealed containers and misdeclaration of weights, contents and manifests mean that Masters have no real idea of what the ship is carrying and the dangers that the cargo may pose.  

Even so, there is something odd about the Flaminia incident, particularly the salvage operation that has been clouded in secrecy. Dangerous cargo is labelled and normally stowed on deck. We may never find out what cargo- or combination of combustible and toxic cargo- was aboard the ship and why there was panic amongst coastal states in the region. Other questions remain unanswered: the crew abandoned a presumably seaworthy vessel (she has been towed around for almost two months after the explosion from the Atlantic). In any case, the refusal of refuge led to a situation where the Flaminia, approximately a thousand miles from the UK when she caught fire and was abandoned, will take almost two months to be towed into a safe port.     

The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency says now that inspectors "are all completely satisfied that the vessel is in a safe and stable condition to make her onward journey to Germany". Owners Reederei NSB comment, somewhat cryptically, "The prevention of harm to the population and the environment is the top priority during all further stages of the salvage."


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