One of the largest cargo ships on the planet embarked from Sines in Portugal on the 30th of December and was bound for Bremen in Germany, but on the night of the 1st of January, nearly 350 containers tumbled overboard from the MSC Zoe into the North Sea.
The exact cause of the container spill has yet to be publicly confirmed, but what do we know about that night? Has the clean-up effort been handled fairly, or has it become politicized?
The first sign of the scale of the spill came at dawn on the 2ndof January: Tiny pink and purple ponies, flat screen televisions and thousands of lightbulbs were littered across a ten-kilometre-wide stretch of sand on Terschelling. Regional ferry services and bus lines offered discounted tickets to transport volunteers to the islands for the clean-up effort, and around 100 soldiers were dispatched to the region to chip in.
View this post on Instagram
The #msczoe, the largest container ship which holds 19,000 containers has lost 270 due to a storm. ? THIS is why we must #refusesingleuse NOW. Look how much plastic is dumping into the ocean without us even using it- now add the yogurt container, soda bottle, ziplock bag, etc. you throw away each day… ? We had no say in this catastrophe but we do have a say in the products we buy and the waste we create. ? This is sooo sad! All these products which already caused environmental stress to manufacture, now dumped into the ocean, never even used, and will be replaced with even more cheap products. ? #cleantheocean #cleanouroceans #savetheocean #containerspill #haveaseat #beachcleanup #savemotherearth #savethemermaids #savethewhales #plasticpollution #oceancleanup
The beaches on Vlieland and Ameland were flanked by beach combers looking to clean-up the environment and salvage any goods not ruined by exposure to salt water. Winter storms in the North Sea drove the debris inland along the Groningen and Frisian mainland coasts, littering the dikes with Styrofoam. At the behest of the mayors of the Wadden islands, the clean-up effort was formally scaled up to emergency level four five days after the spill.
The exact contents of all of the containers have never been publicly released, to the consternation of local politicians and citizens. At least two hazardous materials were known to be on board, including lithium ion batteries and dibenzoyl peroxide.
In May, Dagblad van het Noorden reported that the mayors of the Wadden islands could request to view the full manifest, and RTV Noord and Omrop Fryslan filed a Dutch Freedom of Information Act (WOB – wet openbaarheid van bestuur) request to gain the same access. The full manifest for the 8,000 containers which remained on board the ship and the 342 which fell overboard was made available, but only in general terms: the specific contents of shipping containers on board large cargo ships are rarely described in detail.
The full toll of the spill took several days to come into focus: initial reports claimed that 200 containers had fallen overboard, but by early February – following an inspection of the damaged MSC Zoe in the Bremen harbour – it was determined that 342 shipping units had clattered into the sea north of the Netherlands and Germany.
View this post on Instagram
Aerial photos provided by the Dutch Coast Guard show the extent of the damage to the MSC Zoe after losing an estimated 270 containers in the North Sea on Tuesday night. It is not yet clear exactly how many containers were knocked overboard due to stormy weather conditions, but the ship arrived in Bremen on Thursday morning and an inventory of the damage is being carried out. The contents of the containers, ranging from car parts to toy ponies and hazardous organic peroxide powder, have been washing ashore on the Wadden Islands and the northern coastline of the mainland since Wednesday, and volunteer-led clean up efforts are being carried out across the region on Thursday. You can find an in-depth overview of the latest developments to this story in our bio and at www.northerntimes.nl. #msczoe #northsea #terschelling #vlieland #schiermonnikoog #friesland #lauwersoog #groningen #pollution #waddensea
While weather conditions and striking an underwater sand bar are still plausible theories for why the containers fell overboard, a reconstruction of the circumstances that led to the North Sea spill by Omrop Fryslan and RTV Noord looked more closely at the inconsistently enforced guidelines of the shipping industry. Neglecting to place heavier containers inside the hull of the ship for stability could have been part of the problem, and growing demand from consumers for delivery companies such as Alibaba and Amazon has led to fierce competition among cargo companies to transport more cargo more quickly, which, along with rising harbour mooring, can lead to cutting corners for the sake of rapid turn-around.
The Dutch Maritime Police and the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate announced within a week of the spill that they would be conducting a criminal investigation into the container spill. In March, the first damage claims filed in connection with the clean-up were denied by the Swiss shipping company’s insurance. By the end of April, around 2 million kilos of debris had been recovered by salvage ships, and the Ministry for Infrastructure and Water Management said at the time that around 1.4 million kilos of lost cargo remain on the sea bed.
In the aftermath of the spill, there was political momentum to try and create more transparency and oversight in the shipping industry in Dutch waters: the Leeuwarder Courant reports that the Labour party member William Moorlag called for the creation of a damage fund, but a week after the parliament debate, the governing body voted the motion down. A related motion from the Party of the Animals requesting that manifests be made publicly available.
In early June, the salvage mission was temporarily halted, but is set to resume in the near future. So far, around 85 percent of the cargo which wound up in Dutch waters in believed to have been cleaned up, according to RTV Noord. Over the past few months, wreckage of crashed World War II-era airplanes and the remains of a 16th century ship (the oldest ever found in Dutch waters) have been found as an inadvertent side effect of the clean-up effort in the North Sea.
The environmental impact of the cargo spill is still unfolding. Research from the University of Groningen mapped out the spread of plastic pellets across the Wadden Islands in the spring, and determined that 24 million of them had washed ashore and, in some cases, was embedded in the sands and grasses of the islands. Oyster beds in the waters of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadden Sea may have been damaged, and other sea life throughout the food chain may be ingesting the materials that fell overboard.
Help mee met in kaart brengen van plastic vervuiling in en om de Waddenzee! Wetenschappers @lauralgovers, @hanolff en Tjisse van der Heide lanceren webapp https://t.co/GzAh0dLYjM Zie: https://t.co/pbk1SAybzV @NIOZnieuws #wadden #RUG #msczoe pic.twitter.com/EGdY7f4Eda
— University Groningen (@univgroningen) January 11, 2019
Since the early January accident, several other ships in the Switzerland-based MSC fleet have been involved in public incidents. In Venice, the MSC Opera, a cruise ship owned by the company, lost control and struck a dock and a tourist boat in early June, injuring several people. Another ship, the MSC Sandra, leaked 3 tonnes of fuel in Sines, Portugal in April, and just this week, the MSC Gayane was the target of a drug bust in the United States where one billion dollars’ worth of cocaine was reportedly found on board.
Not a “disaster”
While politicians and volunteers described an air of chaos in the days immediately following the spill, a report on the ongoing clean-up published by the Netherlands Institute for Safety in late June concluded that the crisis response generally went smoothly. RTV Noord writes that the report concluded that it should have scaled up to level 4 more quickly, but stopped short of referring to the incident as a “disaster”.