Foreign ship held as fire hazard Argentine-flag vessel is found to imperil crew, environment

Shipping

December 29, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

An Argentine-flag tank ship hauling South African molasses has become a reluctant resident of the Dundalk Marine Terminal, detained by U.S. Coast Guard officials who call it a hazard to the environment and to the ship's crew.

One of the Campo Duran's main engines doesn't work and the ship can't produce fresh water for drinking and bathing, the Coast Guard said yesterday. The ship also is leaking oil into its bilge so profusely that one of its cargo holds was converted to a slop tank, and the water separator required to clean the bilge doesn't work.

The Campo Duran arrived in Baltimore Dec. 18 after a brief stop in Trinidad and Tobago, and was quickly ordered to stay in port after a routine Coast Guard inspection. At least one crew member says he considers the ship too dangerous to sail and wants to go home, though the vessel's owners are working to correct its problems.

"The first day I arrived on board, I told the master I believed [the ship] was extremely dangerous to operate," said Alfredo Oscar Martinez, 47, the first mate, who reported to the ship in Baltimore last week. As were other crew members, he was resting last night at the International Seafarers Center on the marine terminal grounds. "Nobody on board knows how to operate it or has any tanker experience," Martinez said. "Many people are not happy, but they are afraid to lose their jobs and have to pay the ticket to get back."

Coast Guard officials describe the Campo Duran as one of the most troubled foreign ships the agency has ever boarded in Baltimore, but say the vessel's Greek owners are cooperating and that the ship could sail in a week or two.

The Campo Duran was built in 1975 and hadn't called on an American port since 1988, making it a top priority for Coast Guard inspectors. Foreign governments generally adopt the same safety standards as the United States, but many don't enforce them.

A team of inspectors went on board the ship shortly after it arrived in Baltimore. The inspectors also had been asked by the ship's owners to certify it to carry flammable and combustable liquids. The team found a crew member welding in the engine room -- illegal under any circumstances without a permit, but so dangerous, given the fuel leaks, that the ship was immediately detained as a fire hazard.

After several more days of inspections, the Coast Guard found that the Campo Duran's radar plotting system didn't work, its emergency towing system was sitting on the stern uninstalled and one of its lifeboats was blocked in by 55-gallon drums stacked on the deck. The ship has no heat, some of its toilets are filled with waste and crew members were living in an area that was supposed to serve as the ship's hospital.

"As soon as the ship is safe to sail, we'll let it go. We're not trying to penalize anyone," said Coast Guard Lt. John Nadeau. "But there are some obvious safety and habitability concerns."

Chief among the Coast Guard's worries is that the ship seems to have no safety-management system -- the required set of procedures the crew should be trained to follow in emergencies. Its safety manuals are in English, but the crew speaks mostly Spanish, and even the ship's officers seemed not to understand how the safety systems are supposed to work, Nadeau said.

On Christmas Eve, the Campo Duran spilled 150 gallons of fuel oil into the Patapsco River because crew members trying to transfer it from a holding tank to a generator pumped it through the wrong pipes. They quickly cleaned up the spill, but now are prohibited from transferring fuel without Coast Guard inspectors aboard.

The Coast Guard team at Curtis Bay routinely finds safety and environmental problems on ships, but rarely enough to warrant detaining the vessel.

But tight profit margins and competition from ships using Third World labor have made safety problems on foreign ships increasingly common in American waters. The Pakistani freighter Delta Pride arrived off the coast of Brownsville, Texas, just before Thanksgiving and is still there -- its owners bankrupt and its crew relying on handouts for food.

As common as such problems have become in the modern era of foreign-flag shipping, however, crew members of the Campo Duran have an advantage: The vessel's operators are paying to keep it afloat. Sougerka Maritime Co. Ltd. of Piraeus, Greece, reportedly is working with the ship's flag state -- Argentina -- and the "classification society" responsible for certifying its systems to get the vessel under way.

Meanwhile, the crew works aboard the ship at the Dundalk pier and the buyer awaits its molasses at the ship's scheduled stop in Albany, N.Y. Crew members who spent Christmas in their bunks or playing pool at the Seafarer's Center are making plans to spend New Year's Eve there, too.

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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