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India’s Busiest Port Shut as Containers Drift in Sea

Ports close after collision
Cargo-boxes on board the MSC Chitra fall from the deck into the Arabian sea. Photographer: Pal Pillai/Bloomberg

Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s busiest container harbor, suspended operations as salvage workers tried to recover hundreds of cargo-boxes shed by a vessel following a collision in the Arabian sea.

Sea lanes will be cleared in two to three days, India’s shipping ministry said in a statement posted on the government’s web site today. The MSC Chitra, operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., had 1,219 containers on board, of which 31 had hazardous chemicals and pesticides, Satish Agnihotri, India’s director general for shipping, told reporters in Mumbai today. The vessel collided with another ship two days ago.

The closure of Jawaharlal Nehru Port and neighboring Mumbai Port, which together handle about 40 percent of Indian exports, will disrupt shipments of goods including petroleum products, grains and automobiles, according to R. Venkatesh, vice president of the Western India Shippers Association. Companies have already stopped accepting bookings, he said.

It may take “at least a couple of days” for normal operations to resume, said Venkatesh, whose group represents about 130 exporters and freight forwarders. He said there hasn’t been a similar collision in the channels off Mumbai in his 30 years in the industry.

As many as 17 ships were stranded at the two ports and another 15 were waiting to dock, the ministry’s statement said.

No One Hurt

The Chitra collided with the MV Khalijia 3 at 9:35 a.m. on Aug. 7, according to an e-mailed statement from Geneva-based MSC, the world’s second-biggest container shipping line by fleet size. No one was hurt onboard either vessel, the shipping line said. The Khalijia 3 has berthed and is in no danger of sinking, said an official from Gulf Rocks Co., the ship’s Kuwaiti owner, who declined to be identified citing company policy.

“At present, MSC Chitra is dangerously listed to the port side and heavy oil spillage is sighted from her fuel tanks,” Agnihotri said today.

The ministry of shipping’s statement said as many as 250 containers had fallen into the sea.

The Chitra was deliberately beached following the incident and salvagers from Smit Internationale NV are working to stabilize the ship and its cargo, MSC said. The vessel, built in 1980, has the capacity to carry 2,314 containers, according to data on the Bloomberg terminal.

Safety Faults

The vessel was detained for six days in Australia in November 2008 for faults including a defective ship-safety management system and inoperable ballast tank air vents, according to a report on the website of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Workers are also trying to stem a fuel leak from the ship, MSC said today. All coastal districts in the western Indian state of Maharashtra are on alert as the slick spreads, Press Trust of India reported.

The beached ship was carrying hazardous chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, Agnihotri said. Sodium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns on unprotected skin, is used in the manufacture of paper, textile and soap.

“Considering that the vessel is almost heeled over, it would be fair to assume that these containers would fall off, if not already in the water.”

Jawaharlal Nehru Port handled 4.1 million containers in the year ended March 30, an increase of 2.8 percent, according to data on its website. That’s about 60 percent of nationwide container volumes. By comparison, Singapore, the world’s busiest container port, handled 25.9 million boxes last year.

Cargo Tonnage

Total cargo tonnage at Jawaharlal Nehru Port, including commodities and other types of freight, rose 6 percent to 60.7 million tons last fiscal year.

“It may take some days for any sort of operations to begin at the ports,” said Sohel Kazani, managing director at Interport-Impex Pvt., which handles more than 3,000 containers a month for traders of rapeseed, soybean and industrial chemicals. “Till then, movements of cargo will have to be routed through other nearby ports, which isn’t going to be easy.”

State-run oil refiners Bharat Petroleum Corp. and Hindustan Petroleum Corp. import some crude through the ports for their two refineries in Mumbai, which together process 249,500 barrels a day accounting for 7 percent of India’s refining capacity, according to Bloomberg data.

No Shipments Scheduled

Hindustan Petroleum, which doesn’t have any shipments scheduled for the next 10 days, doesn’t expect to be affected, B.K. Namdeo, executive director of shipping, said by telephone from Mumbai. Bharat Petroleum officials were checking to see if any imports were affected.

Two vessels are currently being loaded at DP World Ltd.’s container terminal at Jawaharlal Nehru Port, Anil Singh, the company’s India head, said today. The company is awaiting information on when the channel will be cleared, he said.

Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and a venture between Container Corp. of India Ltd. and AP Moeller-Maersk A/S also operate container terminals at the port.

The shutdown “will have a big impact on congestion and vessel movements,” said Ramesh Singhal, chief executive officer of i-Maritime Consultancy Pvt., which advises shipping lines and ports.

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