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Damaged shipping container washed up on the rocks

Are containers lost overboard pollution? Yang Ming ship arrested in landmark case

PortandTerminal.com, February 9, 2020

Are containers lost overboard pollution? What if recovering the containers lost overboard risks causing more environmental damage than just leaving them where they are? That’s what Yang Ming’s insurance company is arguing and say that’s why they refuse to payout.

PORT BOTANY, AUSTRALIA – Are containers that are lost overboard pollution? It seems ridiculous to even ask the question. Of course, they are. Containers lost at sea create both an environmental and a shipping hazard which surely must meet some minimum threshold of what pollution can be defined as.

When it comes to containers, there is risk for every sort of contamination; they can contain acid, alcohol, manufactured products but also dangerous products.

Antidia Citores of environmental NGO the Surfrider Foundation: Lost at sea: how shipping container pollution affects the environment

That’s not necessarily true though according to Britannia P&I, the insurer of Yang Ming, the shipping line whose vessel accidentally lost 81 containers overboard in 2018. Perhaps the containers aren’t in fact really pollution and are best left where they are. And if by leaving them where they are, they as an insurance company won’t have to pay out millions of dollars to recover them, then so much the better.


Bow of container ship with multiple damaged containers on upper deck.

In June 2018 the Yang Ming owned container ship YM Efficiency was transporting goods from Taiwan to Australia when it was caught in bad weather. It lost 81 containers overboard near Newcastle, Australia.

Tonnes of debris washed ashore in the weeks after the incident. More than one year after the incident residents are still collecting container debris from along their beaches.

The Australian Maritime and Safety Authority (AMSA) said while the shipping company Yang Ming was initially quick to clean up what washed ashore, it did not seem concerned by the containers and debris below the surface.

Volunteers including this boy cleaning up the debris left on their beaches after the Yang Ming incident in 2018
Volunteers cleaning up the debris left on their beaches after the Yang Ming incident in 2018

At one point, three weeks after the incident, Yang Ming hired contractors to search for the missing containers, but AMSA said it was forced to take over control of the operation due to the slow progress.

In the end, the locations of 60 or so of the missing containers have been identified. Most are lying at a depth of more than 100 metres. Many remain a hazard for the local fishermen who tear their nets on the debris down below.

Newcastle’s commercial fishermen said they were frustrated by the time it had taken to salvage the remaining containers — many of which fell in the middle of one of the area’s best fishing grounds.

Australia considers the underwater containers to be a source of pollution and an ongoing hazard. They want the containers salvaged and brought to the surface.

In December 2019, AMSA signed a contract with Ardent Oceania to begin the clean-up operation for those sunken 60 containers. The contract is valued at about AUD $15 million ($US 10 million). Work begins in March 2020 and is expected to be completed within a month.

The locations of 60 or so of the missing containers have been identified. Most are lying at a depth of more than 100 metres

AMSA justifiably wants Yang Ming to pay for the salvage of the containers as well as other outstanding charges related to the cleanup. Yang Ming and their insurance company Britannia P&I though have refused to pay.

What does Britannia P&I have to say?

Back in 2019, a spokesperson for Aus Ship, the Australian representatives of Yang Ming and insurers Britannia P & I, said Yang Ming was “committed to finding all of the containers and removing them where it is safe and practical to do so” but added: “Yang Ming believes that the real risk to the environment is attempting to lift the containers out.”


Things got interesting yesterday when a different Yang Ming containership, the YM Eternity, was calling on Port Botany.

AMSA successfully petitioned the Australian courts to recover the outstanding debt from Yang Ming. So yesterday when one of Yang Ming’s other container ships showed up in Australia at Port Botany the authorities were there to seize it.

Yup. Australia just arrested the YM Eternity and is holding it as collateral against unpaid debts.

READ: Yang Ming ship arrested in Sydney for pollution debt

So now the Australian government has on its hands one of Yang Ming’s container ships, its cargo, and the tattered reputations of both the shipping line and its insurance company Britannia P&I.

My personal view is, and I met with the insurers Britannia P & I last week, I think their behaviour is nothing short of disgraceful

Mark Morrow, AMSA’s general manager 

PortandTermial.com has reached out to both Aus Ship and Britannia P&I requesting their comment. We will reprint any official statement that they wish to publish concerning the matter.

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