21– 27 March 2001

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Yet another Malta-registered ship sinks

The Transport minister Censu Galea went out of his way to highlight the major role that bad weather played in the sinking of yet another Maltese-registered ship – the Balu – which went down yesterday morning in the Bay of Biscay.

But the attribution of bad weather will be of little comfort to the Malta Maritime Authority, which has had to endure a string of disasters, all deepening the dent in the credibility of the Maltese Flag.

The Balu - a small tanker of 5,795 gross tons and 120 metres in length - was carrying a cargo of 8,000 tons of sulphuric acid from the Port of Fredrikstad in Norway to the Port of Hvelva in Spain when it sank in gale force 10 sea conditions.

The French transportation ministry was reported as saying that it had ordered its Accident Inquiry office to investigate why the freighter, which it said could only carry 6,000 tons of the substance, sank.

As the repercussions of yesterday's accident become clearer, the French authorities will still have the Erika disaster fresh in their minds, although experts agreed that the acid would cause little ecological damage if it did escape from the hold of the ship, which is managed by Monaco-based company Traschimar SAM.

"Any pollution would be short-lived and confined to a limited area around the wreck," said Christophe Rousseau, a specialist at Brest's CEDRE, an agency for study and research into sea pollution.

Mr Rousseau said the acid, which is highly soluble in water, would dilute over time.

But French and Spanish authorities will carry out tests in the surrounding waters to be sure there is no significant pollution and the French side will still have vivid memories of December 1999, when the Maltese-registered Erika broke in two off the coast of Brittany, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Atlantic and onto the region's beaches and rocky coast.

The 23 crew members on the Balu yesterday, which Mr Galea said were not Maltese, as erroneously reported by foreign news agencies, but consisted of a South Korean master and Croatian and Filipino officers, were rescued following a distress message and are at present on board two vessels. They will be disembarking at the first port of call in Portugal, where they will be interviewed by Flag State inspectors in Portugal, including a casualty inspector from the MMA who is on his way to the scene.

The Transport minister told The Business Times that he was, of course, concerned about the incident, but said that first impressions appeared to indicate that nothing could have been done to prevent it.

"From the information available, it appears as though the vessel sank as a result of bad weather and that nothing could have been done to avoid it," Mr Galea said. "The accident took place in a very short span of time and the ship sank very fast."
In fact, winds of around 37 mph were blowing in the region yesterday morning, and waves were swelling up to 161/2 feet. No efforts could be made to retrieve the Balu's cargo.

Asked whether he was concerned that yesterday's incident, after the Erika disaster, could place relations with France under strain, Mr Galea said this should not be the case if, as appears, the ship sank because of weather conditions and the problems the sulphuric acid may cause can be contained.

"We are very aware of the problems that the Erika incident caused," he said. "But in this case, the accident appears to be due to the elements and the ship was relatively small. Moreover, thankfully, due to the nature of sulphuric acid, it will not be carried ashore, although the sinking will cause some localised problems."
Asked whether the fact that yesterday's accident marks the latest in a succession of disasters for the Maltese flag indicates the need for an overhaul at the MMA, Mr Galea highlighted some steps already taken there.

"In fact, over the last 12 months the MMA has taken a number of steps to ensure that all ships registered under the Maltese flag are in good shape," he said.

Lloyd's of London, the world's largest marine insurer, listed the Balu as belonging to Dundee Shipping and Trading Ltd.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt