Cheshire fertiliser ship drama still a mystery

Fertiliser fumes billow from bulk carrier Cheshire after its cargo started decomposing off the Canary Islands. Credit: Salvamento Maritimo/Gonzalo Mendez Blasco

Norwegian agricultural inputs manufacturer Yara International has said that it is still too early to say what caused the fertiliser aboard Bibby Line bulk carrier Cheshire to decompose spectacularly off the Canary Islands in mid-August.

Yara owns the cargo of the 56,597 dwt 2012-built Cheshire, which is currently in the southern Spanish port of Motril, where it was brought to have the decomposed fertiliser unloaded.

The vessel’s 24-strong crew had to be evacuated by helicopter on 14 August as conditions aboard became too dangerous, two days after problems with its cargo were first reported. The vessel was photographed from the air with thick smoke billowing from its holds.

A Yara spokeswoman told Fairplay that the group was in the process of completing its analysis of the fertiliser and preparing documentation in preparation for it to be unloaded from the Cheshire.

“The offloading can start once we get authorisation by the port authorities, which we expect to happen shortly,” she said. “The product will be transported by truck to available warehouses at Motril and Granada.”

Earlier, the spokeswoman said that the group needed to know whether the decomposed cargo could still be used or not.

“In case the products cannot be used for agriculture, the products will be safety disposed by a professional handling agency,” she said.

She said that, contrary to earlier reports, Cheshire was not carrying ammonium nitrate (N2H4O3), which has been associated with a number of fatal explosions involving large-scale loss of life, but rather ammonium nitrate-based NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium).

“NPK is an intrinsically safe product,” she said, “and is not classified as dangerous according to EU regulations.”

However, she had no explanation for the decomposition of the product aboard Cheshire, although she acknowledged that there had been previous cases of NPK decomposing while it was being transported by ship.

The latest case was in 2013 when the cargo of another bulk carrier, Trudy, was partially damaged. Before that, in 2002 the cargo of the Singaporean vessel Deneb decomposed after being exposed to a rise in temperature.

In the latter case, the vessel was moored in the Montoir agricultural products terminal of the French port of Nantes- Saint Nazaire. It was being loaded when smoke began escaping from one of its holds, later forming a large cloud over the ship reminiscent of the smoke photographed billowing from the holds of the Cheshire.

The cloud contained gases described as highly irritating to the eye, skin, and respiratory passages, and approximately 15,000 people in the surrounding area were warned to stay indoors to avoid contact with it.

A French investigation concluded that the decomposition had likely been triggered by a heat source adjacent to the cargo, probably a shipboard electrical device such as a lamp.

Cheshire arrived in Motril two weeks ago after having been towed there from the Canary Islands.

MTI Networks, which represents Bibby Line, confirmed to Fairplay that the unloading of Cheshire had not yet started.

A spokeswoman said that, until the cargo had been unloaded, it would be impossible to fully evaluate the vessel’s condition.

Contact Andrew Spurrier

Recent Posts