A 190-metre British bulk cargo freighter named the Cheshire is drifting about 62 nautical miles (114 km) south of Gran Canaria after a chemical fire in her cargo holds, where 40,000 tonnes of fertiliser started to smoulder about 5 days ago as she was headed for the port of Las Palmas. 24 crew had to be evacuated by helicopter yesterday (Monday)after an explosion occurred in the early hours of Monday morning, leaving the crew dangerously exposed to the chemical gases being expelled by the cargo. A specialist team, made up of technicians from the ship's owners, Bibby Line, and chemists from the Netherlands and Gibraltar, are working to try to control the situation.
The Cheshire set sail from the Norwegian city of Porsgrunn on 6 August, and on her way to the South Atlantic she planned to make a brief stop at the port of La Luz, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, last Sunday, to refill fuel tanks. However, two days earlier an incident occurred in the cargo caused by a chemical reaction. According to sources, the ships owner reported what happened to the Maritime Captaincy, who immediately denied entry to the port and forced the captain to continue south until about 60 nautical miles from the tip of Maspalomas.
Editor's comment: Here we see once more Gran Canaria authorities react with the priority seeming to be to get the problem away from the island, rather than trying to assist in any manner to contain it. There seems to be a lack of awareness that marine pollution is not OK, even if you manage to avoid it landing on your shores, it will still contaminate marine environments and damage fragile ecosystems.
The last time something like this happened it is said to have caused civil unrest in Mauritania following a "black tide" which poisoned marine life causing authorities to ban fishing, which led to protests in the streets.
The crew have tried over the last two days to resolve the incident. Maritime rescue boats, helicopters and a plane, have monitored the situation, where despite there being no flames or smoke, there was a chemical reaction in her holds that has been producing harmful gases.
The situation worsened shortly after midnight on Sunday, when there was a loud explosion in hold number four. This was followed by other minor blasts, which did not injure any crew members but did force the evacuation of all occupants, leaving the ship without a crew, according to Salvamento Martimio sources. It appears from the latest pictures that large plumes of smoke are now coming from the cargo.
The cargo of fertiliser is owned by Norwegian multinational Yara, who specialise in chemicals for agricultural plantations. They have explained that the situation could take days to bring under control due to the "delicate" situation the ship now finds itself in, requiring expert assessment from specialised personnel used to dealing with these highly volatile chemicals. The freighter is not expected to capsize or sink despite the situation, nor is it contemplated that any pollution might affect the coasts of the Archipelago.
But will there be pollution? And what damage will it cause? And where?
The ship was sent away from the islands in the same direction as was the stricken Russian fishing vessel Oleg Naydenov that sank two years ago after a fire in her hold whiled docked at the Port of La Luz.