Nickel Ore: Russian Roulette At Sea

Nickel ore from Indonesia, loaded in remote ports like Obi Island (in yellow) - far from the prying eyes of regulators.
Nickel ore from Indonesia is loaded in remote ports like Obi Island (in yellow), far from the prying eyes of regulators. The trade is profitable, but is coming at an enormous human cost.

By Alexander Healey

Panama finally reveals what happened to three bulkers lost in 2010. But little action is being taken to improve safety for seafarers.

Bulk-Nickle-Ore-Casualties
Click To Expand Table Of Casualties

Ever had the urge to play Russian roulette at sea? Well forget the gun. Indeed, forget Somali pirates, murder in the Gulf of Guinea and Italian-captained cruise ships. Instead turn your gaze to Indonesia’s remote nickel ore ports and the world’s deadliest shipping trade.

Indonesian nickel ore exports to China constitute 2-3 million tons of cargo each year – a miniscule proportion of world trade. That translates into only around 40-60 full ship loads per annum based on the size of the vessels that have been lost. But deaths on the trade far outnumber those from Somali pirates.

Since late 2010, 82 Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese seafarers have died after loading nickel ore from Indonesian mines and steaming for China where the ore is used in steelmaking. Five ships, four of them flagged by Panama, have been lost. Many more seafarers and ships have had lucky escapes.

All five of the ships lost – the most recent was the Harita Bauxite in February (see Table Of Casualties above) were assumed to have suffered liquefaction of the cargo. But this has never been definitively known because maritime investigation reports into the tragedies have, until now, never been made public by the Flag States responsible for filing them.

GCaptain has now obtained copies of the maritime investigation reports into the 2010 losses of the Hong Wei, Jian Fu Star and Nasco Diamond.

All three vessels were flagged by the Panama Maritime Administration which has only now made the reports available. They were all carrying nickel ore loaded at relatively remote ports in Indonesia and were steaming for China. They all sank in roughly the same location and they were all Chinese operated and manned. All three reports concluded that the ships most likely sank due to liquefaction of the cargo, a complex chemical process which effectively turns cargoes such as nickel ore into sludge if loaded when it is too wet.

The reports reveal just how rapidly the ships sank, and how terrifying the final moments must have been for those that lost their lives. They also offer multiple industry pointers on why the trade is so dangerous and suggestions about how it could be made safer – revelations which make Panama’s decision not to make the reports public until now all the more baffling, especially given the fact that 37 seafarers have subsequently died in similar circumstances and one of those ships, the Harita Bauxite, was also flagged by Panama.

On 27 October 2010 the Master of the Jian Fu Star retired to sleep at 0020. A few hours later the Chief Officer woke him after the ship suddenly listed five degrees to port and did not right itself. The Master immediately instructed the engine room to pump out ballast waters on the port side and fill them on the starboard side. This corrective action failed and the Jian Fu Star inclined to ten degrees.

Realizing the severity of the situation the Master raised the general alarm, activated a distress call on the ship’s GMDSS, sounded the abandon ship signal and attempted to call the DPA from his cabin. But, unable to walk and rejoin the crew and with the port boat deck now immersed, he instead grabbed his immersion suit and jumped into the sea. He was rescued just over three hours later by a passing cargo vessel.

He was lucky. Although 12 of the 25 strong-crew were rescued, 12 remain missing and are presumed dead and one dead body was recovered.

The deadly impact cargo liquefaction can have on vessel stability was also laid bare -investigations found that within 20 minutes of the first initial list the ship had capsized and sank.

A similar story was told by survivors of another tragedy just two weeks later. At 11.11 on 9 November 2010 the Master of the Nasco Diamond reported to his supervisor by satellite telephone that the vessel was listing 3 degrees to port and cargo slurry was washing around all five holds.

The ship manager’s Emergency Response Team was immediately activated. The Master was instructed to use the submersible pump to eject slurry from the cargo holds and all crew were instructed to scrape and scoop. At 18.25 the Master reported the vessel was in a stable condition.

That was the last communication the ERT had with any of the crew of the Nasco Diamond. A rapidly assembled multi-national search and rescue team was dispatched only to find oil slicks and empty life rafts at the vessel’s last known position.

On 11 November three crew were plucked from the seas, along with the dead bodies of chief officer Ding Tong Fei and Ordinary Seamen Chen Xiao Jun. The bodies of 20 more Chinese seafarers that manned the ship have never been recovered.

One investigation report talks about multiple other dangerous incidents on the trade from Indonesia that have gone unreported. Another raised doubts about the accuracy and authenticity¬Ě of the laboratory data supplied by one ore seller.

One investigator concluded that spot checks would not absolutely guarantee the cargo would not liquefy onboard, and that an expert should be appointed “to liaise and supervise” the local surveyor and samples should be sent to trusted laboratories even if this takes a multiple days due to the remoteness of many nickel ore mines in Indonesia. Loading should not commence until the test results have been received and the expert is satisfied that the cargo is safe for shipment.

What is made abundantly clear is that IMO efforts to tighten loading regulations for nickel ore are unlikely to have much impact on seafarer safety because obtaining reliable moisture content reports at many remote Indonesia islands is all but impossible, and independent surveyors are routinely prevented from doing their jobs by shippers or are harassed by police.

One investigator admitted that in Indonesia it “may not be possible for an expert to attend on site due to difficulties, hostility and a lack of cooperation as experienced at certain locations¬Ě”.

Another said: “Many mines in the regions where these cargoes are available to carry are very basic and are situated in very remote locations, making it hard for surveyors and experts to attend them. Moreover, it is not easy to arrange for cargo samples to be tested independently due to the lack of reliable laboratories.”

One investigator concluded: “A negative result from the can test described in the IMSBC Code (i.e. no free moisture or fluid condition is noted in the cargo) does not necessarily mean that the cargo is safe for shipment.”

One report called on the Panama Maritime Administration to issue a Circular to shipowners highlighting the danger of carriage of cargoes that are liable to liquefy during the passage and the sudden loss of intact stability due to the shift of the cargoes in rough seas.

“The circular should advise shipowners to pay special attention to these cargoes especially from Indonesia, due to the raining seasons and a great chance of these cargoes loaded on board with moisture content (MC) exceeding the flow moisture content (FMC) for that cargo,” said the report.

Masters should not accept such cargoes.

Panama was unable to confirm if any such circular was ever issued to shipowners.

Indonesia’s next rainy season is due to commence in September/October and there is no reason to believe that nickel loaded then will be any safer than it has been over the last four years. There is no evidence that Indonesia has done anything to offer more protection to experts or surveyors attempting to carry out their duties as required. And there is little to suggest that the more advanced nickel ore safety precautions issued by insurers and shipping bodies in London over the last three years have been translated into the Asian languages of those who will rely on them, or if this information has ever even reached load ports.

This means Masters, equipped with only primitive, unreliable testing techniques for liquefaction and buffeted by multiple commercial interests motivated more by the profits available from the nickel ore trade rather than crew safety, will continue to be the only protection seafarers loading nickel ore in Indonesia have between a safe voyage and catastrophe.

The upshot is that those managers and owners still sending their vessels to load nickel ore in Indonesia are playing Russian roulette with their ships, and using the lives of crew as the stake.