Safe salvage of the container vessel "MSC Flaminia" based on a successful cooperation between the federal government, German states and industry

Two months after a fire broke out on the container ship "MSC Flaminia" in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, cleaning up works can now be carried out at safe harbour facilities of Jade Weser Port. Thanks to the successful work of the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies and experts from different German institutions, the salvage operation was successfully completed without any further damage. Any spillage of pollutants into the North Sea and the Jade Bay was prevented. The Central Command for Maritime Emergencies in Cuxhaven is a joint institution of the federal government and the states. In case of an emergency, the Central Command takes on responsibility for coordinating all German agencies. If required, it can be reinforced at short notice with additional resources from both federal and state institutions. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has conducted assessments for the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies to establish the health risks posed by the ship's cargo. The BfR furthermore facilitated an open exchange of information with the various environmental agencies during the rescue operation. "It was the first time that the BfR was thus directly integrated into the network of German institutions to manage emergencies at sea", explains BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "The organisation of the salvage operation by the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies was certainly successful in the case of MSC Flaminia: Germany’s know-how in the area of transport of dangerous goods and maritime emergencies was systematically channelled and successfully used under the leadership of one institution."

The “MSC Flaminia”, a container ship under German flag, had departed from Charleston (South Carolina) and was on its way to Bremerhaven via England and Belgium in July. About 2,800 containers were aboard the ship, many of them 12 meters long. For reasons as yet unknown, a fire broke out in the cargo hold in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. During fire fighting, several containers exploded. One sailor died while another one is still missing. On 14 July 2012, the ship signalled a distress call. The ship’s crew and passengers were then evacuated. Despite the fire fighting efforts of salvage tugs, for weeks it was not possible to extinguish the fire completely . Since no European Coastal State offered to provide a place of refuge where the situation aboard the ship could be brought under control, Germany as the Flag State decided to take care of the cargo ship. On 20 August 2012, the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies was advised to secure and salvage the vessel.

As the institution for assessing the health effects of toxic and corrosive dangerous goods, the BfR contributed to the safe return of the damaged cargo vessel under the leadership of the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies by. The Central Command for Maritime Emergencies ordered the BfR to identify and assess the hazards posed by each of the more than 150 dangerous goods containers which were on board and, as a precaution, to make available first aid guidance relating to every single container.

Already during the first days, the BfR additionally checked the entire list of containers not declared as dangerous goods to note potentially dangerous contents. This was to identify all goods that potentially posed a health threat to enable the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies to establish reliable hazard assessements for the cargo. This was achieved by close cooperation with the Transport Accident Information and Emergency Response System of the German Chemical Industry (TUIS). TUIS made available safety data sheets on the products loaded in the dangerous goods containers.

The BfR acted as the link between the Environmental Panel of Experts (UEG) under the leadership of the Federal Ministry for the Environment in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Transport and the Environmental Ministries of the five German coastal states. The Environmental Panel of Experts (UEG) in which the BfR is represented supported the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies as an advisory body. In coordination with the Federal Ministry for the Environment, the BfR assisted the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies to communicate with non-governmental environmental associations.

At the end of August 2012, there was public concern that the ship’s cargo would be more dangerous than known before. It was the evaluation of the cargo documents at the BfR that enabled a realistic assessment. Compared to other container vessels using the same route, the “MSC Flaminia” transported less hazardous cargo in general. Stowage of these containers was in compliance with the strategy specified in the maritime regulations for the transport of dangerous goods. The assignment of supposedly unspecified generic cargo names complied with the international regulation and did not indicate hazardous waste. In accordance with these regulations, generic terms such as “corrosive solids” must be used for specially synthesised chemicals or mixtures from chemical manufacturers, as long as the chemicals or mixtures do not have an own United Nations dangerous goods number. The list of dangerous goods did not show any irregularities compared to goods typically transported in international container traffic. Clearing the burnt area on the “MSC Flaminia” and recovery of the damaged containers must, in the opinion of the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies, be done by specialists who must notably be able to competently handle risks of dangerous goods containers. With the identification of the health risks and by providing specific first aid guidance for every container on board, an additional safety net can be provided for these operations.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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