SEATTLE -- Emergency procedures are being instituted at ports in Western Washington after a string of problems with exploding shipping containers. The problem, say those familiar with the situation, is not with the cargo but with the containers themselves.
At issue are refrigerated containers called “reefers,” which passed through Vietnam since the first of the year. The working theory is the units have been contaminated with bad coolant which can become explosive when exposed to oil, even air. There could be as many as 8,000 worldwide, according to one shipping industry estimate.
But it is still a theory. “What seems strange to us as a union is that they cannot pinpoint the problem,” said Chris Peeler, a member of the Labor Relations Committee of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, local 19 in Seattle.
The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma both acknowledged they are working with the ILWU, the Pacific Maritime Association, the group representing the shipping lines, and the United States Coast Guard. New procedures are now in place to quarantine suspect refrigerated containers until it is proved they have not passed through Vietnam since the beginning of 2011, or are rendered safe.
A fire was reported at the Port of Oakland on Monday, but no one was hurt. The ILWU says it refused to work on a ship there on Tuesday after it was not satisfied it was being provided with proper paperwork.
No work stoppages have been reported in Western Washington, Longview, or Portland.
Instead all parties say the “work-around” procedures are in place.
Trade industry reports say two workers have been killed in Vietnam and another in Brazil. There are no reports of workers injured in the United States.
The ILWU says the danger could extend beyond the ports, if the containers are not stopped at the dock and checked out. “We don’t want this reefer going down the road and exploding next to a mom and her kids,” Peeler said.