The chemical fertiliser fire spreads, on board ship adrift south of the archipelago

British cargo freighter, the MV Cheshire, continues to drift unmanned in the Atlantic south of the Canary Islands Archipelago with the chemical fire in part of its cargo having spread to two more of the five holds. The ship, owned by the company Bibby Line Limited based in London and Liverpool, is now about 75 nautical miles south of the western-most island of El Hierro.

A week after the chemical reaction first started inside the cargo ship – carrying 42,654 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser – eight technicians from the Netherlands and Gibraltar hired by Resolve Marine, the US company specialising in shipping accidents who are working with the owner of the freighter to deal with the situation, have not yet been able to board the Cheshire due to the toxic smoke-like gases billowing from the chemical reaction that started in hold number four last week. In a statement, Bibby Line acknowledged that “efforts are being thwarted” by the gas cloud, so it has been necessary to bring more reinforcements to begin with the work of cooling the boat.

The Punta Salvinas Maritime Rescue vessel which was flanking the British freighter has now been replaced by the Miguel de Cervantes, a specialist vessel built in 2006 to carry out various tasks including maritime surveillance and act when necessary as part of the coast guard and maritime rescue divisions. Captain of Maritime Rescue in Las Palmas, Pedro Mederos, explained that the new escort vessel offered more ability to assist in lowering the temperature of the Cheshire if the specialists hired to quell the combustion determine that is the best course of action. Las Palmas Sub-delegate from the Spanish Government in the Canary Islands, Luis Molina, stressed that it is a “much more powerful” boat with “more resources.” This is in addition to the Red Sea Fos tug contracted by Resolve Marine and two other vessels chartered by the same company: the VB Hispania from Castellón and the Jacques 2 from Casablanca. Both headed out to sea yesterday in the direction of the scene of ​​the affected ship.

A technician from the marine authority, the Maritime Captaincy of Las Palmas, and another from the Directorate General of the Merchant Marine flew over the Cheshire yesterday to evaluate the situation. The second of them having experience in extinguishing fires caused by similar compounds as is being carried by the freighter, compounds which are notable for their ability to oxidise, becoming more volatile at higher temperatures.

“Worrying” situation

The conclusion drawn from their reports is that the situation is “worrying”. Earlier this month, the ship sailed from Yara Porsgrunn (Norway). The scheduled route marked a stop at the Port of La Luz to refuel before proceeding to Thailand with the 42,654 tonnes of NPK fertilizer, owned by the Norwegian multinational Yara. However, a chemical reaction began in hold number four, due to what has been described as an abnormal rise in temperature, for reasons not yet known. The ship was refused entry to Las Palmas and directed south. The toxicity of the smoke the reaction produced, following a series of explosions, containing a high level of nitrous oxide, forced the evacuation of the 24 crew members last Monday, none of whom were injured.

Although the combustion occurring in that hold has been reduced due to the fertiliser having been consumed over several days of burning, the chemical reaction has intensified spreading into hold number five – which is located next to the engine room – and a new reaction has started in hold number three making it very difficult to determine if the ship will sink, as it depends on how all this heat is affecting the ship’s structure.

Given the danger of the situation, sources said that one of the technicians deployed to the area, by the fertiliser company Yara, has acknowledged that he has never seen something like this and recommended not approaching the ship. There is no set or prescribed safety distance to navigate near boats during incidents like that on the Cheshire. It is at the discretion of boat captains themselves to decide what distance they keep depending on the circumstances.

Ammonium nitrate, the base ingredient of fertiliser, is well known to become explosive when mixed with high temperatures. The freighter is still located within the exclusive economic zone of Spain, which gives Spain the right to establish what measures must be taken for the conservation of marine resources. These, insists Captain Mederos in Las Palmas, “are not threatened.” He basis this on the premise that the cargo is highly water soluble, so it is not expected to adversely affect the marine ecosystem or the coast of the Archipelago.

Bibby Line Limited say they are confident of saving the 190 meter long Supramax bulk carrier which they have operated since 2012, and specialised sources say that it would very difficult for a bulk carrier of this type to sink despite the intensity of the combustion on board. They do however emphasise the necessity for continuous cooling on both sides of the freighter if they are to be able to bring the incident under control any time soon.  The simple fact is no-one really knows what to expect.

These same sources consulted by La Provincia point out that the ship can not be repaired in the Canary Islands, as there are no shipyards capable of rebuilding a vessel of such dimensions. In any case, the Maritime Captaincy has already warned that in order to grant permission for the bulk carrier to enter port, it must first pass an inspection that determines that it does not present any danger to the local population.

Source:  La Provincia 

Editor’s thought:

Although we are sure that the experts know what they are doing, and their assessment is sound, for us lay people it could be somewhat worrying that at 42,000 tonnes, this load of fertiliser is almost 20x more than the amount that caused the largest ever industrial explosion of its type in US history, back in 1947, in Texas, where people 10 miles away were blown off their feet!

On April 16, 1947, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate docked at the Port of Texas City erupted in flames, causing a massive explosion that killed approximately 576 people, according to the Texas State Historical Association.  It was the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.

“A fire anywhere is cause for concern, but a fire at a fertilizer plant is a potential catastrophe….

Ammonium nitrate, or NH4-NO3, is frequently added to improve a fertilizer’s nitrogen content. It’s relatively stable under most conditions and is inexpensive to manufacture, according to Slate, making the chemical a popular alternative to other, more expensive nitrogen sources.

But ammonium nitrate has a potentially lethal downside: If it comes into contact with an open flame or other ignition source, it explodes violently. The explosive force occurs when solid ammonium nitrate decomposes very rapidly into two gases, nitrous oxide and water vapor.

The deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history occurred in the port of Texas City, Texas, in 1947. A carelessly tossed cigarette started a fire aboard a ship carrying about 2,300 tons (2,086,000 kilograms) of ammonium nitrate packed in paper sacks. [The 10 Greatest Explosions Ever]

When the chemical exploded, it caused a blast powerful enough to knock people to the ground in Galveston, Texas, 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.

The detonation also caused a chain reaction when a nearby ship, also carrying ammonium nitrate, exploded, setting fires at chemical tanks and oil refineries near the port. An estimated 581 people were killed in the disaster.

But not all disasters involving ammonium nitrate are accidents: The fertilizer was packed into a rented truck and used by terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to kill 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The chemical was used again in the 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, in the 2011 Oslo bombing by Anders Behring Breivik, which killed eight people, and in numerous other terrorist attacks.

Because of its danger and potential use by terrorists, ammonium nitrate is subject to strict regulation in most places. In 2011, according to NBC News, the Department of Homeland Security established rules limiting the sale of the compound, which is also used as an explosive in the construction and mining industries.”

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