Fire-hit ship left to drift sparks port-haven debate


A tanker left to drift between South Korea and Japan has sparked a debate about stricter IMO guidelines to designating ports as safe havens

For the past 7 weeks a fire-stricken vessel has been towed between South Korea and Japan but has been denied docking privileges, re-igniting the debate that firmer laws must be put in place to designate ports as safe havens for damaged vessels.

On the December 29 the Maritime Maisie, a 400,404 tonne tanker carrying hazardous chemicals, collided with the Car Carrier, Gravity Highway, nine miles off the coast of Busan, South Korea.

The fire broke out when one of the tanks on the Maritime Maisie containing acrylonitrile,, ruptured and erupted.

All 27 members of the tankers crew were successfully evacuated, whilst the ship was left drifting ablaze till January 16th.

According Reuters, around 20,000 metric tons of chemicals and 640 tons of heavy fuel oil remain on board the vessel.

As soon as the blaze began, debates rose in regards to where the damaged vessel should be moved and safely unloaded of all volatile stores.

Before tow lines could be secured to the vessel, it drifted into Japanese territorial waters.

Now with the fire out, the Hong-Kong registered ship has been towed between South Korea and Japan, with both refusing responsibilities amidst concerns of environmental pollution.

Stephen Li, Department senior surveyor from Hong Kong’s Marine Department told Reuters that the department had written to South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries seeking refuge for the second time this month.

They are yet to hear a response, whilst Japan had already declined.

Both countries are members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN sanctioned body that stipulates non-binding guidelines in regards to places of refuge for ships.

The body came to fruition after a series of incidents, notably in Europe, where ships were left drifting without port, until the broke up causing wide-scale pollution.

These include an incident in 2002 when the oil tanker prestige broke up off the coast of Galicia, Spain, spilling 60,000 metric tons of oil and polluting 3,000kms of coastline.

However, with both Japan and South Korea rejecting responsibility to ensure the safe docking of the vessel it has come under question whether such sanctions need reinforcing.

Tim Williams, Regional Manager of Asia Pacific with the tanker lobby group INTERTANKO, said to Reuter that “Member states are failing to meet the spirit of their obligations.”

Arthur Bowring, managing director of Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association noted that: “The IMO guidelines are only guidelines. Local politics and concerns take precedence and it becomes difficult.”

With calls from the International Salvage Union (ISU), International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Union of Maritime Insurance (IUMI) for governments to tackle this issue further, demand for stricter outlines has become paramount.

Comite Maritime International, a Belgian umbrella of maritime organisations, proposed for a binding IMO for safe havens in 2009.

The proposal was rejected by the UN on the line that the Nairobi Convention set to start in 2015 which involves the removal of wrecked vessels, will be sufficient.

The issue is set to feature prominently at a meeting next month at the Asian Shipowners’ Forum.

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