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Hopper Barge Fire Loaded with Wood Pellets

Hopper Barge Fire Loaded with Wood Pellets. Image courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

US Coast Guard Issues Safety Alert for Wood Pellet Fires

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 11479
November 28, 2023

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a safety alert to mariners, warning them about the dangers associated with fires caused by wood pellets. This alert comes after two separate incidents where unmanned and uninspected hopper barges loaded with wood pellets caught fire while awaiting transport at a Mississippi River fleeting facility.

Both fires resulted in significant damage, costing approximately $355,000 each, including total loss of cargo and extensive damage to the vessels. The cause of these fires was determined to be spontaneous combustion, a phenomenon that is not necessarily common but has been observed before. According to the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code, wood pellets containing additives or binders can ferment over time if their moisture content exceeds 15%, leading to the generation of flammable and asphyxiating gases that can cause spontaneous combustion.

Further assessments of other wood pellet barges revealed several hazards that can contribute to spontaneous combustion. These include visible moisture, cargo decay and discoloration, elevated cargo hold temperatures (reaching 168°F), and the presence of carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide gases generated by cargo decomposition. It is believed that some of these conditions were present prior to the fires. Unfortunately, the first indication of a problem was the sight of smoke from smoldering pellets. The heat from the smoldering cargo melted the hopper covers, introducing oxygen and causing rapid and uncontrollable fire growth.

To address these safety concerns, the Coast Guard strongly recommends the following measures for shippers of wood pellet cargoes and owners/operators of hopper barges:

  • Take precautions to isolate the cargo from external moisture sources, including suspending cargo operations during inclement weather and ensuring hopper covers are maintained to prevent rain ingress during transport.
  • Plan deliveries in a way that minimizes long-term storage, especially on board barges.
  • Regularly monitor cargo temperatures to detect early signs of decomposition.
  • Conduct frequent inspections to identify any signs of smoldering.

The Coast Guard’s safety alert, titled “Wood Pellet Fire Hazards” (Safety Alert 10-23), provides more detailed information and can be accessed here.

By raising awareness of these fire hazards and providing recommendations for prevention, the US Coast Guard aims to ensure the safety of mariners and prevent future incidents involving wood pellet fires.

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