Hidden behind the tragedy of the recent deadly explosion in Beirut is the more pervasive travesty of the abandonment of ships, seafarers and cargo, and unless the global public reckons with this deeper problem, a next disaster is all but inevitable.
Though Lebanese investigators say that nearby fireworks likely ignited the 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate, the true causes of this explosion stem from slower-moving and less dramatic factors: anemic enforcement by shady flag registries that are supposed to hold shipowners accountable, tightened immigration controls that routinely trap stranded crews on decrepit ships, lax rules and a maritime bureaucracy designed more to protect anonymity and secrecy of ship owners than to enable oversight and transparency of the industry.
These are the factors that make it so easy for vessel owners and operators to walk away from their responsibilities usually with impunity, and sometimes with life-or-death consequences for the crew that gets left behind.
The broader story begins on the barely-seaworthy, Russian-owned ship flagged to Moldova called the Rhosus that in 2013 was transporting tons of the volatile and odorless crystalline substance when Lebanese port authorities deemed the vessel unsafe to continue its journey.
Refusing to answer urgent calls from the crew or port authorities, the ship’s owner, a Russian man named Igor Grechushkin, was soon confronted with heavy fines, including roughly $100,000 in back wages and port fees. In response, Grechushkin did what many shipowners do. He cut his losses, declared bankruptcy, and quietly disappeared, abandoning his workers, the dilapidated ship and its deadly cargo.
That Grechushkin could disavow his duties so easily is a consequence of the labyrinthine elements of maritime law and administration, and the distinctly transient and trans-national nature of the industry. Lebanaese authorities were hard pressed to arrest Grechushkin or seize his property since he lived not in Lebanon but in Cyprus, and his shipping company, Teto Shipping Ltd., was registered on the Marshall Islands.
Meanwhile, the men left onboard the Rhosus found themselves in a bind that is surprisingly common for seafarers around the world. Lacking clean water, fuel, or food, not to mention cell service, legal help or the ability to speak local language, these men had no money to get home nor even the immigration papers allowing them to disembark. While warning anyone who would listen about the dangers of the Rhosus’ cargo, several of the stranded crew waited a full year before they were able to go home with help from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which is the largest global seafarers union.
On any given day, hundreds of ships and thousands of seafarers are in the same situation. Port officials like those in Beirut have little power to repatriate abandoned crews or ships when they are left behind. Usually cargo gets sent to its rightful owner because it travels with insurance but the men who work on board are rarely as lucky. A database created by the ITF and international labor section of U.N. indicates that nearly 5,000 seafarers were abandoned on their vessels in nearly 400 separate incidents between 2004 and 2018.
Over the past six years while reporting on crimes at sea, I’ve stumbled across hundreds of these dire predicaments. Take for instance the 16 men stuck on the Zoya 1, a supertanker that in April 2018 had been trapped off the coast of the U.A.E for over a year and were owed more than four months salary. Languishing on board a ship overrun with vermin, the men slowly fell apart, physically and mentally. Unable to disembark, several of the men who were unable to swim tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard. In a photo taken at the time, crew members held signs that said, “We are helpless. We did not commit any crime.” The crew was repatriated in June 2018.
Covid has made matters worse, stranding roughly 400,000 mariners at sea and in ports. “The ITF has been receiving emails from hundreds of seafarers daily, expressing their concern about contracts being extended under duress,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the ITF.
In the Port of Beirut, for example, not far from the warehouse that exploded recently, an oil tanker called the Captain Nagdaliyev was abandoned with 13 seafarers on board. Stuck for nearly a year, these men have been without wages, water or food, and they barely escaped with their lives when the warehouse blew apart sections of their ship.
Even when crews make it home, their cargo presents risks. Case in point: the full oil tanker called the FSO Safer, which was abandoned in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes last year along the coast of Yemen. Hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, this floating bomb could cause massive environmental damage, impede marine traffic and kill hundreds, according to marine safety experts.
Similarly, environmentalists and union officials have warned of a possible disaster tied to an abandoned ship 13 miles off the coast of the Philippines in Manila Bay. A crew of 15 have been stuck on the Spanish tanker MV Celanova since February 2. Loaded with liquid petroleum gas, the tanker lacks enough fuel to keep the cargo refrigerated and port officials warn there is imminent risk of fire.
Internationally, there are strict rules mandating that ammonium nitrate should not be stored near fuels or sources of heat. In the United States, regulations over ammonium nitrate were tightened significantly after the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in which 168 people died.
There is no shortage of blame to share for what happened in Beirut. Local corruption and ineptitude within the Lebanese government likely played a role. Customs authorities repeatedly tried to get permission from local judges to allow them to seize so they could export the ammonium nitrate or to hand it over to the Lebanese Army rather than store it dangerously in the port warehouse. Their urgent letters went unanswered for years.
Port officials globally have a tough time preventing the abandonment of ships or seafarers partly because of the opaque way that the shipping industry polices itself. For centuries, the world’s merchant fleets flew the flag of the country of their home port. That country was responsible for ensuring the proper treatment of the crew and safety of the vessel. This began to change in the early twentieth century with the emergence of “open registries,” also called “flags of convenience.”
The company collecting fees for the right to fly a certain flag is also responsible for policing its customers, ensuring they abide by safety, labor, and environmental rules, and conducting investigations when things go wrong. But in practice, flags of convenience create a perverse incentive for ship operators to shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.
The Rhosus, for instance, was flagged to Moldova, which at least since 2013 has been on a black list that is run by Paris MoU, an international naval organization that monitors and regulates maritime traffic in European waters. The organization labeled Moldovan-flagged ships as “medium to high risk” due to the number of times their ships have been inspected or detained in the past three years.
The media is also complicit. Dramatic disasters like the deadly Beirut explosion reflect acute problems and typically grab press attention. Slow-motion tragedies and bureaucratic crimes of neglect like those that preceded the Beirut explosion rarely get covered, even though the ruinous impact is often as severe. When abandoned seafarers do make it home they usually face crushing debt due to the unpaid wages and the money they borrowed to get this job at sea. Their maritime licenses expired, they are often also blacklisted by the local employment agencies that control access to jobs.
In 2017, partly motivated by bad press and union pressure, the shipping industry came together in an unprecedented fashion and tried to confront their tendency to abandon seafarers. The industry imposed a new rule requiring shipowners to carry insurance to cover the costs of sailors marooned in port. Unfortunately, most of the smaller and older vessels that are most likely to strand mariners are not, under this new rule, the ones required to carry such insurance.
Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.