Beirut blast highlights inadequate Australian shipping regulations for transport of dangerous goods

Published: 6 Aug 2020

Photo: Baltimar Venus (sister ship to Boreas that caught fire of Newcastle carrying Ammonium Nitrate)
Australia must urgently overhaul security and licensing provisions for shipments of dangerous and high consequence goods, including ammonium nitrate, in light of the catastrophic blast in Beirut that killed at least 135 people and injured thousands more, according to the Maritime Union of Australia.
The union has repeatedly warned the Australian Government that the reliance on poorly-regulated foreign flag-of-convenience vessels — like the unseaworthy Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged Rhosus which delivered the explosive material to Beirut — to carry dangerous goods around the coast poses a significant safety risk.
The union said the Australian Government was continuing to issue temporary licences to flag-of-convenience ships carrying dangerous cargoes such as ammonium nitrate without ensuring they adhere to Australian safety standards, and without security checks on the crew members on board.
Among the actions urged is legislation that requires the use of Australian-registered and crewed vessels — which must conform to appropriate safety standards and have properly tra​ined crews​ ​that​ have undergone security checks — to carry high consequence cargoes such as explosives, munitions, weapons, aviation gas, and other liquid and gas fuels.
While Australian seafarers are required to undergo thorough security checks before being issued Maritime Security Identification Cards, foreign workers on flag-of-convenience vessels are exempt from these checks, instead being issued a Maritime Crew Visa without any background checks.
MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said inadequate shipping regulations and security checks were creating a ticking time bomb on Australia’s coast.
“The situation in Beirut, where a dangerous cargo arrived on an unseaworthy flag-of-convenience vessel that lacked the ability to safely store it, could easily be repeated in Australia,” Mr Crumlin said.
“Dangerous goods like weapons-grade ammonium nitrate come in and out of Australian ports on flag-of-convenience ships without any process to ensure they can safely carry that dangerous cargo, or that their crew members don’t pose security risks.
“The porous and substandard level of background checks on foreign workers through the Maritime Crew Visa — which is issued electronically without background checks — is completely inadequate and inappropriate for such high consequence cargoes.
“This coastal and international shipping trade has been left open to the lowest bidders who utilise exploited foreign crews who are often extremely fatigued due to spending more than a year at sea.”
Mr Crumlin said urgent actions were needed to protect the Australian coastline, as well as workers and nearby residents at ports that handle dangerous cargoes.
“Last year, 85,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate moved through the Port of Newcastle alone — 30 times the amount that devastated Beirut — posing a significant threat to safety,” he said.
“The Australian Government must urgently tighten shipping regulations to ensure dangerous goods are carried on vessels that are registered in Australia and crewed by Australian seafarers who have undergone appropriate training and security checks.
“Using Australian owned, operated and crewed ships for the transport of dangerous goods is a simple way to ensure safety standards are met, significantly reducing the danger posed by shipping.
“This would also ensure that all seafarers moving this cargo have undergone the strict background checks and ongoing compliance that is required to be issued with a Maritime Security Identification Card.”
Background on the Rhosus, from the New York Times:
The Rhosus, which flew the flag of Moldova, arrived in Beirut in November 2013, two months after it left the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Georgia.
The ship was leased by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman living in Cyprus, who had been paid US$1 million to transport the high-density ammonium nitrate to the port of Beira in Mozambique.
The captain joined the ship in Turkey after a mutiny over unpaid wages by a previous crew.
The ship was trailed by debts, crewed by disgruntled sailors and dogged by a small hole in its hull that meant water had to be constantly pumped out.
It carried a volatile cargo, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a combustible material used to make fertilizers and bombs.
Mr. Grechushkin told the captain he didn’t have enough money to pay for passage through the Suez Canal, so he sent the ship to Beirut to earn some cash by taking on an additional cargo of heavy machinery.
Lebanese officials found the ship unseaworthy and impounded the vessel for failing to pay the port docking fees and other charges.
Six crew members returned home, but Lebanese officials forced the captain and three Ukrainian crew members to remain on board until the debt issue was solved. A Lebanese judge ordered their release on compassionate grounds in August 2014.
The crew’s departure left the Lebanese authorities in charge of the ship’s deadly cargo, which was moved to a storage facility known as Hangar 12, where it remained until the explosion on Tuesday.
The Rhosus sank in Beirut harbour in 2015 or 2016, after taking water on board.

New York Times article: Blame for Beirut Explosion Begins With a Leaky, Troubled Ship


Media contact: Tim Vollmer 0404 273 313


Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney