Federal court sides with Oceanex on Cabot deck shattering

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Barb Sweet
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The federal court has sided with Newfoundland and Labrador shipping firm Oceanex Inc. over a 2007 incident in which the deck of one of its vessels was shattered.
The decision was rendered earlier this month by Justice Sean Harrington in Ottawa. The case was heard last fall in Montreal and St. John's.

But the incident occurred years ago when liquid oxygen leaked from a cryogenic tank container on the MV Cabot, causing part of the deck and shell plating to become brittle and fracture.

Harrington ruled against Praxair Canada Inc. in the principal amount of $641,246.09, plus simple interest calculated at the rate of five per cent per annum beginning Jan. 18, 2008.

The damages cover repairs, rerouting, lost profit and overhead.

Interest puts the judgment above $1 million but no cheque has been cut as both parties have 30 days to appeal, Oceanex executive chairman Capt. Sid Hynes said Tuesday.

Harrington also said in his decision it was lucky that the Cabot was in dock when the incident happened.

“Indeed, it was most fortunate that the incident occurred while the Cabot was safely alongside,” he concluded.

“Had it occurred at sea in heavy weather, the likelihood is that she would have broken in two. One could only hope that the crew would have been able to get to the lifeboats in time.”

Hynes agreed the incident could have been disastrous if it happened during the voyage. There were about 22 crew members onboard.

“It had the potential to be very dangerous, put it that way. If it had happened at sea, the consequences would have been severe. We would have lost the ship,” Hynes said Tuesday.

And Hynes said if there had been a sinking, the company may not have ever known the cause, because while leaking liquid oxygen freezes steel and makes it like glass, the appearance would have returned to normal afterwards.

Oceanex no longer deals with Praxair and does not carry similar goods, he said.

“It was a big wake-up call with that. We just did not like what we had seen there,” Hynes said.

Liquid oxygen is carried aboard Marine Atlantic, however, on the lower risk voyages of two types of restricted crossings.

RR crossings cover such things as explosives and only 12 passengers — operators of the trucks the goods are transported on — are allowed onboard.

But liquid oxygen is considered an R material, as is propane, and 51-66 passengers are allowed onboard. Paint and hairspray are other examples of R goods.

“Marine Atlantic is one of the only modes of transportation that has the capability and capacity to ship these products to Newfoundland,” Marine Atlantic spokesman Darrell Mercer said Tuesday.

“The differences between restricted crossings and regular passenger crossings are the segregation activities that take place with the respective commercial vehicles and the reduced number of passengers that travel on these sailings. These regulations are outlined and governed by Transport Canada.”

There are two special crossings a week for restricted goods from both North Sydney and Port aux Basques.

Meanwhile, the Cabot is still operated by Oceanex and was repaired immediately after the 2007 incident, but Hynes noted the business that was lost at a crucial time of year — the leadup to that Christmas season.

 

‘Unusual bang’

The Cabot set sail from Montreal on Dec. 11, 2007, bound for St. John’s with rolling stock and containers onboard.

During cargo operations at St. John’s in the early morning of Dec. 15, a loud “unusual bang” was heard, the federal court noted.

The officer of the watch, and longshoremen working down below in the after part of the main deck, heard the noise, observed cracks in the weather deck plating and could see the sky.

“A snow-like substance was falling down and sizzling when it landed on the main deck. They also saw a crack in the side shell plating which was opening and closing by as much as two inches,” Harrington wrote, adding it turned out the 20-foot tank container, filled with liquid oxygen, had just been discharged from the ship’s Bay 2 and was seen spewing its contents onto the dock.

The ship was evacuated and cargo operations ceased. No one was hurt.

During the legal case, Praxair, which leased the container from another firm, alleged the leak was caused by rough and improper handling by Oceanex or another party Oceanex was responsible for and counterclaimed.

Numerous witnesses testified in great detail, noted Harrington, who referenced an earlier incident in his finding in which there was a leak in the container while in the yard of a trucking company used by Praxair.

He said even if something else contributed to the December Cabot incident, Praxair had been on notice for two months “that it had a serious problem.”

“All Praxair did was snug up the nut on one of the two leaking fire block valves. It did not even write up the incident,” Harrington concluded of the event of October 2007 in the yard.

“The importance of the experience lay mainly in the fact that an exceptional leak lasting several hours occurred. In my opinion, that circumstance should have put Praxair on inquiry. It should have ascertained the facts as closely as possible; it should have realized that severe leakage through valves hidden behind the cabinet doors could no longer be regarded as beyond the bounds of possibility; and it should have been at pains to see what could be done to counter the problem which was thus revealed.”

He also said insufficiently tightened packing nuts could not be detected by Oceanex.

“The fire block valves were behind sealed cabinet doors. Indeed, ‘who knows what goes on behind closed doors?’” the justice wrote.

Praxair Canada responded to an inquiry from The Telegram but was not able to provide comment as of deadline.

 

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Organizations: Praxair Canada, Marine Atlantic, Transport Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, North Sydney, Montreal

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