Explosive Containers: Pacific Maritime Association Puts Profits Before Public Safety

Despite three deaths globally and numerous injuries and burns, shipping executives reject proposals designed to keep at-risk containers out of U.S. communities.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (November 7, 2011) - As thousands of potentially explosive shipping containers circulate the globe, Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) executives are rejecting the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's (ILWU) calls for safety procedures designed to protect workers on the docks and keep at-risk containers out of U.S. communities.

The PMA wants to limit the isolation of refrigerated containers (also known as "reefers") to those imports only that have transited Kat Lai, Vietnam, in the past year.

The ILWU wants to isolate all reefers that have transited any part of Vietnam in 2011.

Despite the fact that PMA has known for over nine months that thousands of contaminated reefers are circulating among its member companies' reefer fleets, the danger to health and safety did not become public until October 2011 after three workers were killed by explosions while servicing contaminated reefers. 

Following the three fatalities, Maersk Inc., a PMA member company, informed the World Shipping Council's Safe Transport of Containers Working Group that reefers coming from Southeast Asia had exploded for no apparent reason.

Experts in the shipping industry have known since spring that counterfeit or imitation refrigerant is being used by vendors in Vietnam to service reefers. 

This fake refrigerant reacts with the aluminum in a reefer's compressor, forming an explosive mix that burns in contact with air.

Union officials at the ILWU in San Francisco, and local officers at West Coast container terminals, have advocated in arbitration hearings and at numerous meetings with PMA for effective safety protocols since learning of the potential for fatal explosions in October 2011.

"The union has been working seven days a week for almost a month now to reach an agreement that allows workers to maintain a productive pace on the docks while ensuring that only safe containers enter the community," said Robert McEllrath, ILWU International President.

"Unfortunately, the PMA looks past these ticking time bombs and sees only dollars and cents."

In the Puget Sound Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, the local arbitrator has established protocols that provide complete transparency for the workers, a safe handling procedure, capture and isolation of all 2011 Vietnam transited containers on the terminals. 

In Oakland, the PMA member terminal operators have refused to provide complete transit transparency on all reefers, have refused to isolate Vietnam transited reefer containers, and have insisted that longshoremen be forced to deliver suspect reefer containers to the unsuspecting public.

Under the PMA's flawed response to the exploding container crisis, longshoremen who stand up for their own safety and the public are summarily fired. 

Dozens of ships have been delayed and hundreds of longshoremen have been fired.

"Given what I know, I wouldn't pull my personal vehicle next to any reefer on a public highway," said Leal Sundet, representative of the ILWU Longshore Division.

"It is all about deceit and money now."

On Tuesday, the PMA will try to get the coast arbitrator to eliminate the Puget Sound arrangement and allow suspect containers to enter the community.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union represents 50,000 men and women on the docks and in warehouses and other industries in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.