THE BLOG

Wherever Coal Ships Go, Trouble Follows

08/20/2014 01:52 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014

For the last three weeks, divers have labored to weld large steel plates over a two-meter long hole accidentally smashed in the hull of a coal ship when it grounded near a Canadian coal export port. While repair work on the fully-laden Amakusa Island is nearing completion, the accident highlights the risks that come with shipping ever increasing quantities of coal around the world.

While port authorities and coal companies routinely downplay the risks of accidents from shipping, the July 14 accident in which the Amakusa Island was seriously damaged serves as a cautionary tale of what can so easily go wrong.

After having just been loaded with 80,000 tonnes of coal at the Ridley Terminal coal export berth in Prince Rupert in British Columbia, the Amakusa Island was directed to an anchorage ahead of its final departure for Asia. The weather was good and, with a local pilot on the bridge, few would have thought the risk of an accident was that great.

But while the ship was in transit it crashed, ripping a hole in its outer hull. (The local port authority prefers to use the more genteel term "ran aground" but that belies the violence of what happens when a ship loaded with 80,000 tonnes of cargo collides with a stationery object).

In next to no time three forward ballast compartments were flooded, causing the ship to list noticeably to the front and to one side. Worse for wear, the Amakusa Island was dragged off the ocean floor with the assistance of two tugs before limping back to port. For most of the past three weeks, divers have worked on a temporary repair to the ship so that it can complete the delivery of its cargo and then have a more permanent repair undertaken.

The accident could have easily been so much worse.

Crashing and bashing with Big Coal

As seaborne coal exports have grown - dominated by supplies from Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, the US and Colombia - so too have accidents with coal ships.

Just a year ago, a Greek-owned but Panamanian-registered coal ship, the MV Smart, loaded 140,000 tonnes of coal from the Richards Bay Coal Terminal in South Africa and set off for China. However, it didn't get far. Just after the pilot had departed from the ship it lost engine power and hit and got stuck on a sandbank where it was relentlessly battered by 10-meter seas. When three tug boats attempted to pull the vessel off the sandbank the ship broke in two, prompting frantic efforts to prevent over 1,700 tonnes of oil spilling into the ocean.

There have been numerous other accidents too.

Early in 2013, in a desperate attempt to prevent a laden coal barge sinking, the crew dumped hundreds of tonnes of coal into Santa Marta bay in Colombia. With the beaches of Santa Marta a popular tourist drawcard, the coal dumping by Drummond - a major US coal company with a poor local and international reputation - caused uproar.

The controversy was made worse by the fact that Drummond didn't inform Colombian environmental authorities of the accident until well after the event. Not surprisingly, the authorities reacted by suspending Drummond's export operations for almost a month, fined it US$3.6 million and required it to pay for a clean-up of the affected beaches and coastline.

Three years earlier - in April 2010 - the Shen Neng 1 crashed into the Great Barrier Reef in Australia when carrying a load of 65,000 tonnes of coal from the Port of Gladstone to China. At the time the Shen Neng 1 was running at full speed but 6 nautical miles outside the shipping lane.

The crash resulted in the fuel tanks being punctured and a 3 kilometer long oil slick trailing from the stricken ship. Luckily, relatively little of the ship's oil escaped into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area before it was refloated. After some of its coal cargo was offloaded in Australia to lighten its load, it limped off to Singapore. A subsequent investigation found that fatigue of the ship's crew was a major factor in the accident.

In August 2011, the MV Rak - which was carrying 60,000 tonnes of Indonesian coal to India - sank off the coast of Mumbai. While the crew was rescued, the 290 tonnes of oil and 50 tonnes of diesel weren't. Despite initial reassuring claims by government regulators that there was nothing to worry about, within days an oil slick had crept close to the coast sparking alarm amongst communities dependent on fishing.

In the past few years there have been numerous other disasters as well: coal ships have also sunk off the coast of Turkey, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

There have been numerous close calls too. Back in December 2012 the coal ship the Cape Apricot crashed through and destroyed 100 metres of coal conveyor system at the Westshore Terminals coal export terminal in Vancouver, Canada. As with the Amakusa Island, the Cape Apricot was under the control of a local port pilot.

How much more can the oceans bear?

Even though estimates of demand for seaborne traded coal over the next decade have been revised dramatically downwards in recent years, the coal industry still has grand plans for new coal ports. New export terminals have been proposed everywhere from the Pacific North West of the United States, to South Africa, Mozambique and beyond.

On top of that major terminal expansions have been proposed such as at Abbot Point next to Australia's Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Other terminal expansions have been proposed at Newcastle in Australia and in Vancouver in Canada while a new coal port has even been been completed in North Korea.

Even if only a part of the fleet of proposed new coal-fired power stations are built in rapidly-electrifying countries, then more new coal import terminals may well be built too.

If the coal industry's dream of more exporters and more importers comes true, there would be ever more huge coal ships plying new routes for decades to come. All of which would make the accidents such as occurred in Port Rupert when the Amakusa Island ripped a two meter-long hole in its hull even more common.

While the problems that flow from the mining and burning of coal are increasingly well known, the history of coal shipping accidents is less well documented.

But what we do know is that wherever coal ships go, trouble follows.