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South Africa authorizes dumping at sea of cargo that turned volatile

An infrared image of an affected hold in the NS Qingdao. Image courtesy of SAMSA.

  • South Africa plans to dump unstable chemicals at sea after they reacted with rainwater during offloading from the NS Qingdao bulk carrier in Durban in October and started releasing toxic fumes.
  • The country’s maritime safety authority has until March to dump the cargo of fertilizers and industrial reagents into the open ocean 250 kilometers (155 miles) offshore of the fishing town of St. Helena Bay, a two-hour drive north of Cape Town.
  • The emergency authorization for the operation is predicated on it being the most “environmentally, socially and economically” suitable option, but scientists say the dump site overlaps with an area of critical biodiversity within the Benguela Current ecosystem.
  • South African authorities said they will investigate what triggered the incident aboard the NS Qingdao, which flies the Marshall Islands flag but has registered owners in Hong Kong.

On Oct. 23, 2021, the bulk carrier NS Qingdao, carrying 1,500 metric tons of fertilizers and industrial reagents, docked in South Africa’s Indian Ocean port of Durban. During offloading, rainwater entered the cargo hold and set off a chemical reaction, releasing toxic fumes. After three months of uncertainty about the reactive cargo’s fate, South African authorities plan to dump it into the open ocean.

“Why is the ocean being used for toxic waste dumping when we should be protecting our oceans?” said Liziwe McDaid, from South African NGO The Green Connection.

Despite referring to the fumes as “toxic,” the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has downplayed its potential to harm people and the environment. Exposure to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide can be dangerous or even deadly to humans.

A copy of the emergency authorization for the dumping, seen by Mongabay, also raises questions about whether sea dumping is the most “environmentally, socially and economically” suitable option in accordance with South African laws.

“We have not seen any evidence which would convince us that the decision to dump into the sea rather than deal with on land was preferable,” McDaid said.

A trackhoe excavating the residue of NS Qingdao’s reactive cargo. Image courtesy of SAMSA.

McDaid and other activists are demanding more transparency from SAMSA and South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), which issued the emergency permit in December to go ahead with the operation 250 kilometers (155 miles) off the fishing town of St. Helena Bay on the country’s Atlantic coast.

At least half the area lies within a critical biodiversity area identified in the recent National Coastal and Marine Spatial Biodiversity Plan, Stephen Holness, a marine ecologist at Nelson Mandela University, told Mongabay.

This stretch of the Atlantic lies along the migration route of threatened leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). The waters are also home to white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) and support the endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos). This large seabird feeds on fish, squid and crustaceans.

In November, SAMSA assured the public that the cargo would be neutralized before being disposed of at Vissershok, a landfill near Cape Town, on the other side of the country from Durban, that’s equipped to handle low- to medium-hazard waste.

But the plan to pump an inert gas into the ship’s hold to cut off oxygen supply to the reactive cargo failed.

“There was no other alternative but to apply for an emergency dumping permit as it was clear that removing the reactive cargo by skip was too slow to extinguish the fire,” Vernon Keller, deputy chief operations officer at SAMSA, told Mongabay.

Keller described the decision to dump the chemicals into the sea at a depth of 3 km (1.9 mi) as a “last resort.”

The location of the dumping site indicated by a red rectangle on the left, 250 km offshore from St Helena Bay on the western coast of South Africa. Image via special arrangement.

The chemicals are stored in bags, but some are damaged. “An excavator is going to … grab the cargo and dump it on the ship’s deck. Then, it is washed overboard, or [the excavator] dumps it directly into the water,” Keller told a South African radio channel.

SAMSA only released a list of chemicals aboard the NS Qingdao on Jan. 20, under pressure following the announcement that its cargo would be dumped at sea.

The 10 chemicals listed are: sodium metabisulfite, magnesium nitrate hexahydrate, caustic calcined magnesite, monoammonium phosphate, ferrous sulfate monohydrate, zinc sulfate monohydrate, dicalcium phosphate, sodium sulfite anhydrous, calcium chloride, and electrode paste.

But the authority has failed to provide any information about what it expects will happen to this cocktail of chemicals once it’s in the ocean.

At least one of the listed materials should spark concern. Ferrous sulfate monohydrate is widely used in fertilizers and animal feed and can prove toxic to marine life, according to the U.N.’s classification of chemicals. The aqueous form of the chemical is also listed in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code.

Keller said the decision aimed to prevent “a much larger environmental disaster — such as having a fully loaded ship sink with all the cargo, fuel and other contaminants on board.”

In his radio interview, Keller said SAMSA had consulted with marine biologists and fisheries experts before deciding on this course of action.

However, these assurances haven’t quelled concerns.

Glenn C. Miller at the University of Nevada, who specializes in environmental chemistry, reviewed the list of chemicals and said that while they’re “not particularly toxic in low to moderate doses, they can be problematic if the concentrations are very high.”

“The impacts will be related to the amount of each chemical released and the rate that the chemicals move away from the release point,” he said, highlighting the need for more information.

Whether the chemicals affect marine life also depends on the lay of the seascape. In a closed bay, for example, it can alter the chemistry of the water.

“Releasing chemicals of this type into the ocean should generally be avoided,” Miller said.

Location and approximate spatial extent of the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem. Image courtesy of Finke et al.

The dumping site isn’t near any of South Africa’s existing marine protected areas. However, it lies within the Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem that South Africa has committed to manage with Angola and Namibia.

The Benguela upwelling system is a very productive system that supports several major commercial fisheries and is particularly important for Namibia. “Where an ecosystem is not protected, all that means is that we don’t yet have protected areas there,” Holness said.

As South Africa attempts to bring 30% of its marine areas under protection, that could change. “An enormous expansion of offshore protection would be required,” Holness said. “Particularly, in terms of making sure that you don’t have things like the dumping of chemicals in these places.”

The operation is expected to wrap up in March.

SAMSA says the ship’s owner and its insurer will foot the bill for the cleanup. NS Qingdao flies the Marshall Islands flag, but its owner, Longda International Ship Lease Co. Ltd., is registered in Hong Kong. The Marshall Islands is one of several countries that provide a flag of convenience, a widespread practice in shipping that obscures ownership and makes regulation difficult.

The Hong Kong company is reportedly ultimately owned by China’s Bank of Communications Financial Leasing Co., Ltd. (Bocomm Leasing), which in turn is a wholly owned subsidiary of one of the biggest banks in the world, Bank of Communications, in which the Chinese government has a majority stake.

SAMSA said an investigation would be conducted to determine how the cargo came in contact with rainwater. However, it did not specify a timeline for the inquiry or if the findings would be made public.

DFFE did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment by the time this article was published.

Banner image: An infrared image of an affected hold in the NS Qingdao. Image courtesy of SAMSA.

Malavika Vyawahare is the Africa staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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