Germany's Green party: Ban dangerous chemicals on high seas

Hazardous substances have no business on ocean liners, the German Green party has said after a cargo ship lost 270 containers in the North Sea. But shipping experts have put the blame on the sheer size of new vessels.

German environmental organizations and politicians are calling for shipping containers on cargo vessels to be fitted with tracking devices, in response to an accident that caused a huge vessel to spill around 270 containers in the North Sea earlier this week.

Nature and Environment | 22.03.2018

"The problem is locating the containers," said Olaf Lies, environment minister for the state of Lower Saxony, off whose coast the accident happened. Speaking with the local ffn radio station, he demanded an investigation. "We urgently need to do something," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Manfred Santen, a Greenpeace expert for chemical pollutants, who told broadcaster NDR that it was "no problem technically" to install trackers. Lies also suggested that containers carrying hazardous materials should no longer be stored near the edges or tops of cargo vessels.

The Panamanian-flagged MSC Zoe lost its 270 containers during a storm in the North Sea on Tuesday night, as it was travelling from Antwerp in Belgium to Bremerhaven on the German coast.

Nature and Environment | 25.09.2018

Read more: How to protect the high seas environment?

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Unusual beach litter

Dozens of containers appeared near the islands of Frisian islands of Terschelling, Vlieland, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog. Among the goods washed up on the shore were flat-screen televisions, brought ashore with the polystyrene material they had been packed in. Such material is considered to be flotsam, and inhabitants of the islands have a centuries-old tradition of collecting it.

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Getting a clear picture

Here, one man carries away a flat-screen television, still tightly wrapped in its packaging. Meanwhile, others inspect a cargo container that was washed up on a beach. Some 270 containers were lost from the container ship MSC Zoe, during "heavy weather."

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Floating footwear

It's not unusual to see flip-flop shoes like this on the beach, but they don't usually arrive in pairs as flotsam. Some shoes — and there were a lot of shoes — were wrapped in bags containing silica gel, one of several pollution worries.

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Helping hands

Among the many items to be brought ashore on the waves were to cars, freezers, Ikea furniture, and computer chips. Volunteers pitched in with efforts to clean the beach.

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Hazardous cargo?

This photograph from the Dutch Coastguard shows three of the containers that fell from MSC Zoe floating out at sea. Authorities have warned that some containers are carrying hazardous chemicals such as organic peroxide, and have urged people not to touch the unopened freight boxes. Three containers loaded with chemicals are still missing.

Dutch islanders take to the beach as container cargo washes ashore

Washed away

The Panamanian-flagged MSC Zoe is one one the biggest container ships in the world. Containers appeared to have simply been washed away in the rough weather. German authorities have taken the lead investigating the causes of the accident, which occurred in German waters near the island of Borkum. The bulk of the lost cargo was carried southwest, into waters belonging to the Netherlands.

Dangerous chemicals

At least three of the lost containers are thought to contain dangerous chemicals, and a 25-kilo (55-pound) bag of highly flammable organic peroxide powder has already been recovered from the island of Schiermonnikoog off the Dutch north coast, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Even before Tuesday's accident, Germany's environmentalist Green party had demanded that such substances be banned from the high seas. "Dangerous chemicals have no business on the world's oceans," Green party spokesman Oliver Krischer told DW in an email. "Especially not in the top row of cargo ships, where they can quickly go overboard.

"Limitations, especially for the North Sea and for European ports, should be introduced as soon as possible," he added. "The risk of larger accidents is intolerable."

Dutch authorities have reported that around 20 of the containers have washed up on the shores of the country's North Sea islands, with their contents scattered across the beaches. Local volunteers had collected some 130 tons of goods scattered along 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the coast of the island of Ameland alone.

Read more: Low-emissions ocean ships: Who should pay for shipping's green transition? 

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Is it normal for cargo ships to lose their load?

Conflicting safety concerns

But Uwe Schmidt, a Bundestag member with the center-left Social Democrats and an expert on cargo shipping, questioned the wisdom of the measures demanded by the Green party and Olaf Lies, his party colleague.

Schmidt, who is originally from Bremerhaven, told the Deutschlandfunk radio station that containers with hazardous contents had to be packed on the outside of ships, making them easily accessible in case of fire. He also wondered about the practicality of tracking transponders, given that modern recovery technology, which is equipped with sonar, is already very effective.

Schmidt added that the new generation of supersized ocean freighters, of which the MSC Zoe was an example, had made securing the containers on board much more difficult. "Stacking eight containers on top of each on deck was completely impossible until 10  years ago," Schmidt said. "Of course, that makes the ships significantly more complicated than before, when it comes to stability, and when it comes to securing the load."

He also pointed out that safety on international cargo shipping was practically "self-regulated" through the International Maritime Organization. "I do think that in the future that we will [need] more specialized regulations for individual ship types," he said.

At Friday's regular government press conference in Berlin, Environment Ministry spokesperson Nikolai Fichtner would only say it was "too early" to draw any "political consequences" from the incident.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

Cruise the ocean, destroy the planet

NABU, the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, has published its 2017 cruise ship rankings and the results show how little progress the industry has made when it comes to pollution. Of 77 cruise ships assessed, 76 use toxic heavy fuel oil. NABU says that by using this fuel, one single giant liner will emit as much pollution as 5 million cars would on the same route.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

A noble exception

AIDAnova is the only ship on the list which is powered by the less harmful LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas). It is a new ship on the market, built by the Meyer shipyard in the northwestern German area of Papenburg. It is the first of seven next-generation LNG-powered cruise ships ordered by leisure travel company Carnival.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

A tad less destructive

New additions to the portfolios of companies such as TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises (the 'Europa 2' is pictured here) are at least using nitric oxide reduction techniques through selective catalytic reduction. They also can use electric shorepower when docked at port.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

The fresh, ocean air? Good one!

Many cruise liners do not have soot particle filters or diesel particulate filters, making the air above the ocean giants anything but fresh and clean. The density of fine particles on deck can be anything up to 20 times that of a busy street.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

Breath easier at the captain's table, and beyond

The NABU survey praises the innovation of AIDAnova and suggests that others should look to emulate its lead. Should other cruise liners convert to LPG, residents of coastal areas would benefit from improved air quality.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

A cleaner planet? Not quite

However, LNG is far from a panacea if a recent study by the Transport and Environment organization is to be believed. It does not identify LNG has having significant advantages over diesel when it comes to climate protection. It is increasingly obvious that massive technological changes in shipping are required.

Cruise ships: A dirty kind of luxury

No cruising here, thanks

"No entry for dirty cruise ships" — that's what NABU head Leif Miller thinks is needed, as no major technological shift is in sight for the industry. Given the impact dirty cruise liners have on the health of residents unfortunate enough to live close to their pathways, some kind of drastic action is needed it seems.