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Fridge contaminant blamed for exploding containers

Vietnam: Maritime authorities report that three reefer containers have exploded or caused fire, resulting in two fatalities in Vietnam and one in Brazil.

The cause of the explosions is under investigation but is thought to be the result of contaminated or incorrect refrigerant added to the refrigeration system while under service in Vietnam.

Maersk Line raised the alarm when it informed the World Shipping Council of the incidents involving its reefer containers.  Maersk has removed all its 844 reefer containers that had been repaired in Vietnam while investigations were being carried out.

“We have not been able to identify the exact cause of the incidents,” says the company statement, “but we have noted that the units involved have had a gas repair in Vietnam between late March and late April.

“While it is still too early to conclude, we suspect that during these repairs the gas system may have been contaminated and that this contamination could cause the issues we have seen.”

Speculation is rife over the cause but many suspect the introduction of contaminated or otherwise unsuitable refrigerant into the system, causing a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with R134a, oil or air, and creating an explosive mixture.

APL declared its 50,000-strong reefer fleet safe and said in a statement.  Eric Eng, vice president, APL’s Global Refrigerated Trade said in a statement: “We have reviewed our inspection records and procedures and are fully confident that our refrigerated containers are safe.”

“But to allay concerns, we are adding new requirements, stepping up our inspection program and strengthening maintenance procedures.”

The US ports of Seattle and Tacoma have new procedures 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.

In Western Washington, Longview, or Portland, authorities say the “work-around” procedures are in place.