An industry problem

An industry problem

The photos were stunning. The cost will be even more so. Early estimates are that the spectacular explosion and fire on the 5,551-TEU Hyundai Fortune could produce more than $300 million in losses, making it the most expensive container ship casualty in history.

The March 21 incident came nearly 17 years to the day after a much more widely publicized ship casualty, the 1990 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez oil spill wasn't the worst on record, but it galvanized Congress into passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which set tough new requirements for the entire shipping industry.

Don't expect similar regulations to result from the Hyundai Fortune fire. Despite its huge cost, the incident received scant attention beyond the trade press. Thankfully, there was no loss of life. But the main reason the fire did not receive wider attention was that it happened in the Indian Ocean while the ship was on its way from Asia to Europe. If it had been in New York harbor, the situation would have been much different.

Investigators will be examining the ship's stow plan and crawling through the vessel to determine the fire's cause. Initial speculation centered on consignments of fireworks, the same kind of cargo blamed for the 2002 fire that gutted the 4,400-TEU Hanjin Pennsylvania, which, like the Hyundai Fortune, was eastbound from Asia.

These incidents are reminders of what can go wrong in shipments of hazardous materials. There have been several other cases in recent years involving containerized shipments of fireworks and hazardous chemicals such as calcium hypochlorite, a chemical that is highly flammable when it oxidizes.

Mishandling of hazmat cargo is an industrywide problem. How serious? Consider this statistic: The National Cargo Bureau reports that about one-fifth of the containers it inspects are found to have deficiencies such as improper blocking and bracing, damaged containers or improper documentation.

About 10 percent of containerized cargoes are hazardous, so you can do the math: On a ship the size of the Hyundai Fortune, which was carrying about 5,000 TEUs of exports from Asia, chances are that about 100 TEUs were hazmat with some problem.

It's a problem for all carriers, and has been since the early days of international containerization. As the size of ships continues to increase, so does the potential for disastrous losses. Some of the newest container ships are nearly twice the size of the Hyundai Fortune.

Shippers, carriers, cargo and hull insurers all have a stake in making hazmat shipments safer. But there is another group whose welfare is often overlooked - the ships' crews who must work and sleep on a ship with potentially unsafe cargoes. They have the biggest stake of all.