Indonesia’s wet season generally falls October to March/April, reinvigorating the archipelago’s amazingly diverse flora and fauna and giving its farming sector a major boost. However, the annual monsoons also cause supply chain obstacles for dry bulk exporters as poorly constructed roads turn to sludge. While the lack of transport infrastructure and dependable roads and railways hurts earnings, it is the lack of port storage and transport cover that is of danger to seafarers.
Some mineral cargoes shipped in bulk can liquefy if they contain too much moisture. This problem usually occurs when the cargo is mined and/or stored in conditions which enable the absorption of large amounts of water. This creates the conditions under which cargo liquefaction – the process by which some bulk cargoes turn into liquid – can occur at sea, a process that can result in the vessel rapidly capsizing as it is destabilised as the cargo slushes around in the hold.
This has been an ongoing problem in Indonesia and has resulted in a huge number of preventable deaths. All occurred after the loading of nickel ore destined for China during the wet season.
For context, 53 bulk carriers over 10,000 dwt were lost over the period 2008-2017 resulting in the deaths of 202 seafarers, according to Intercargo, the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners. Of this total, 81 seafarers lost their lives after loading nickel ore in Indonesia between 2010 and 2013 after the vessels destabilised following liquefaction of the cargo.
The losses over the 2010-13 period included the Panama-registered, 1983-built handymax Harita Bauxite which sank on 17 February 2013 after loading nickel ore in Obo, Indonesia. The vessel was headed to Ningbo, China. Ten sailors from Myanmar were rescued one of whom subsequently died. 14 were assumed to have drowned in heavy seas.
Prior to that on December 2011 the Vietnam-flagged Vinalines Queen, a 2005-built supramax bulk carrier carrying 54,400 tonnes of nickel ore from Morowali port in Sulawesi to China, developed a list North East of Luzon Island in the Philippines. Only one of the 23 seafarers on board escaped with his life.
And in 2010 came three additional tragedies. On 3 December, the Hong Wei sank after loading nickel ore in Indonesia - 10 of the crew died. On 27 October the Jian Fu Star sank with the loss of 13 lives after loading nickel ore in Indonesia. And on 10 November 2010 the Nasco Diamond suffered 21 fatalities on 10 November, again, after loading nickel in Indonesia.
Indonesia banned the export of unrefined nickel ore in 2014 in a bid to force miners to process more cargo in-country. The collapse in Indonesian nickel exports saw global liquefaction deaths at sea plummet.
But in 2017 Indonesia resumed exports of nickel and, predictably, the deaths returned. In October last year – the start of the very first wet season since the nickel export ban was rescinded – saw the loss of the Emerald Star and the deaths of ten crew. The vessel had loaded nickel ore at Buli in Indonesia for delivery to China.
Since then Indonesia’s exports of nickel ore have soared and even higher volumes are expected to be loaded this wet season, exacerbating the dangers. Moreover, Indonesia is also upping exports of bauxite which, like nickel ore, was subject to an export ban until early 2017. Bauxite is another major liquefaction risk, illustrated tragically with the loss of the Bulk Jupiter and 18 crew after loading the cargo at the port of Kuantan in Malaysia in 2015.
Indonesia exported 8,637,595 tonnes of nickel ore in the financial year ended March 31, 2018, while bauxite exports reached 2,634,455 tonnes over the same period. However, exports are expected to surge in the current financial year and through the upcoming wet season – as of March 31, Indonesia’s mining ministry had issued quotas for a total of 32,266,315 tonnes of nickel ore exports and 17,127,400 tonnes of bauxite exports.
Researchers predict that as Indonesia reclaims its share of the lucrative Chinese nickel ore and bauxite export markets it previously chose to vacate, volumes will spiral. BMI forecasts that exports of bauxite will register an annual average growth rate of 24.4% per annum during 2018-2027. “We expect output to increase from 7.5m tonnes in 2018 to 43.3m tonnes by 2027," concluded the report.
SMM, meanwhile, expects Indonesia’s exports of nickel ore to China this year surpass 22m tonnes.
Preventing liquefaction is relatively straightforward in theory. Liquefaction is a chemical process that turns a previously safe commodity into a cargo with a dangerously high moisture content (MC). This can quickly destabilise a vessel. Liquefaction happens because some granular materials including nickel ore have void spaces caused by irregular particle shape which can fill with air and/or water. If cargo laden with moisture this way is carried at sea, cargo particles compress the void spaces and pressurise any free water present in the spaces. The moisture released from the mineral structure of some types of cargo increases the amount of free water in the cargo and can lead to a further increase in the pore water pressure.
If the pore water pressure is high, it can overcome the friction forces binding the individual particles of material and the shear strength of the cargo falls to the point where liquefaction occurs. The bulk cargo then becomes a viscous fluid with flow ability. The consequence is the rapid loss of vessel stability due to the movement of liquefied cargo.
The International Maritime Safety Bulk Cargo (IMSBC) Code provides guidance on the standards to be applied to prevent liquefaction. The two key points are the determination of the Transportable Moisture Limit (TML), which is the responsibility of the shipper, and the determination of the actual moisture content of individual shipments. If the actual moisture content portion of a representative cargo sample consisting of water, ice or other liquid expressed as a percentage of the total wet mass of that sample is higher than the TML, the cargo should not be loaded onto a vessel.
The IMO recommends that independent auditors should provide test analysis certificates before loading cargoes that can liquefy, and that visual inspections and complementary tests can be conducted by crew before loading to determine moisture levels of the cargo. However, as previously reported in DCI, in Indonesia a lack of oversight from maritime and port authorities, the absence of reliable law enforcement in many smaller load ports, and pressure from ship operators and shippers on crew and master, have prevented the correct procedures from being followed.
A number of maritime authorities contacted by DCI refused to comment on the specific dangers facing seafarers manning bulk carriers in the coming Indonesian wet season, although many emphasised that stakeholders in the trade should take the utmost care.
"Cargoes that are liable to liquefaction are well known to us and categorised as Group A cargoes under the IMSBC Code,” said a spokesman for the Association of Bulk Terminal Operators. “We all have a responsibility to ensure that the Transportable Moisture Limit (TML) is not exceeded when loading these cargoes. The loss of the Bulk Jupiter illustrates the need for great care, particularly when adverse weather conditions occur."
A spokesperson for the International Union of Maritime Insurance (IUMI) said the main cause of casualties and near misses due to liquefaction was the poor compliance of shippers with the testing and certification requirements that were designed to ensure that cargoes were loaded only if the moisture content was sufficiently low to avoid liquefaction occurring during the voyage.
“In reference to Indonesia, there have been problems with shipments of nickel ore, particularly if loaded during their wet season, which runs from October to April,” he said. “The heavy rain will undoubtedly increase moisture levels during loading. The result is cargoes being shipped with a moisture content above its Transportable Moisture Limit, leading to cargo failure - liquefaction/dynamic separation.
“In order to avoid saturation, loading should not take place during periods of rainfall in order to minimize saturation. In reference to Indonesia, I understand that there was a case of misdeclaration of nickel ore as iron ore, resulting in P&I Clubs reminding their members ‘to be especially cautious when accepting cargoes from Indonesia in the region during the wet season and times of heavy rainfall’.”
Reporter: Mike King