Ian Urbina: The ticking time bomb of lax shipping regulations

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The broader story begins on a barely seaworthy, Russian-owned ship flagged to Moldova called the Rhosus. In 2013 it was transporting tons of the volatile and odourless crystalline substance ammonium nitrate 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. Lebanese 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 the 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.