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Liquefaction – don’t assume coal is not a risk!

Court of Appeal confirms Commercial Court decision on the meaning of “unit” in Article IV of the Hague Rules|BDM Blog|BDM Law

Cargo liquefaction can have serious and deadly consequences.  One needs to look no further than the tragic and sudden capsize of the Bulk Jupiter in January 2015.  The vessel had loaded bauxite ore in Malaysia for ports in China and all but one of the crew members perished when the ship sank in a matter of minutes.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has well established codes for dealing with solid bulk cargoes prone to the risks of liquefaction.   These cargoes are categorized as Group A cargoes.   However, there is often confusion when it comes to what is or is not a Group A cargo.   The obvious examples are nickel ore and iron ore fines but it is dangerous to proceed on the basis of cargo description.  The actual definition is much more generic, namely cargoes liable to liquefy if shipped at a moisture content exceeding their Transportable Moisture Limit (TML).   In order to avoid the risk of liquefaction, shippers of these cargoes have been required to provide information including the TML and actual moisture content.  Such cargoes should only be accepted where the actual moisture content does not exceed the TML.   There are a number of practical tests used to determine if liquefaction may be an issue – such as doing can tests – but the only real way to be sure is to take representative samples and conduct laboratory tests.  In many countries it is unwise to rely on information furnished by shippers (some of whom own the mines) or their local lab (which is likely to depend heavily on business referred by the local shipper).

Recently, the focus of liquefaction has been on cargoes not traditionally thought to be at risk.   Up until 1 January 2019 coal cargoes were, with some exceptions, considered to be Group B cargoes i.e. cargoes considered to be dangerous goods in solid form or materials hazardous only in bulk.   However, as a result of recent amendments to the IMSBC Code, which came into force on 1 January 2019, coal cargoes are now to be considered as falling under both Group A and B unless (1) they consist of particles large enough to prevent liquefaction i.e. a particle size distribution where not more than 10% of particles are less than 1 mm and not more than 50% are less than 10 mm, or (2) where the competent authority of the country of loading can specify laboratory criteria to assess whether or not the coal cargo possesses Group A properties.   Such criteria would most likely be based on the outcome of the test methods for Group A cargoes in Appendix 2 of the IMSBC Code.

As a result of the above changes to the IMSBC Code, it is essential that prior to loading masters must request shippers to clarify whether coal cargoes fall under Group B only or Group A and B.  Where no particle sizing criteria are provided it should be assumed that the cargo falls under Group A & B.   Where a coal cargo is declared to fall under Group A & B, or where the master suspects it may fall under both groups, the master must follow the IMSBC regulations and insist on receiving the cargo’s TML and moisture content certificate prior to loading.   Furthermore, where such cargoes are stored in the open or delivered from open barges it is imperative that the master insists on the cargo moisture content being re-inspected after any period of rain and he should carry out the usual checks to establish if there is any sign of liquefaction and, if so, insist on further inspection by a qualified surveyor and further lab testing.

BDM has dealt with a number of liquefaction claims.  We advised the owners of the vessel that loaded immediately after the Buk Jupiter and, fortunately, we managed to facilitate the backloading of the mis-declared and dangerously wet cargo so that the ship could resume trading without incident.  We are therefore very familiar with the legal issues relating to liquefaction and well placed to advise ship owners and operators on how best to protect themselves.

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