Korea Blames “Unauthorized” Alterations and Maintenance for 2017 Casualty
More than six years after the loss of the converted bulk carrier Stellar Daisy, a South Korean inquiry into the sinking which claimed the lives of 22 crewmembers confirmed the findings blaming maintenance issues while also adding some new details on the contributing factors.
The loss of the Stellar Daisy on March 31, 2017, approximately 2,000 nautical miles from the Port of Montevideo, Uruguay with 24 crew members on board shined light on the then-common practice of converting aging tankers into large bulk carriers. Having begun her life in the 1990s, the Stellar Daisy was a converted very large ore carrier (VLOC) with an overall length of 322 meters (1,056 feet) and 266,141 dwt. She had 10 cargo holds.
The conversion was carried out at Cosco (Zhoushan) Shipyard, and typical of the VLCC-to-VLOC conversions the center cargo tanks were outfitted with the addition of deck hatches to be used as bulk cargo holds. The process required the hull framing to be reinforced and modified with the addition of about 6,000 tonnes of structural steel.
According to a report from Korean news agency Yonhap, the Busan Regional Maritime Safety Tribunal issued a ruling today, December 5, citing “neglect of maintenance by its operator,” as the cause of the Stellar Daisy casualty. Previous investigations reported that cracks had been seen on the vessel and believed it split in two and sunk. The Stellar Daisy was fully loaded carrying 260,000 tons of iron ore at the time of the casualty.
The tribunal, according to the report from Yonhap, reported that it found the vessel’s operator Polaris Shipping had installed an unauthorized wastewater storage device on the bottom of the ship. They concluded that the company did not inspect or strengthen the ship's hull. The shipping company was supposed to conduct repairs to safely load cargo on the Stellar Daisy, but the tribunal ruled that Polaris let the ship set sail without reinforcement.
Polaris’ maintenance and operations have previously been cited in the investigations into the casualty. The Marshall Islands in 2020 issued a report from its investigation citing structural damage that was likely due to a combination of factors, including the strength of the ship’s structure being compromised over time due to material fatigue, corrosion, unidentified structural defects, and multi-port loading, as well as the weather conditions the vessel encountered in the days preceding the casualty.
In 2020, Polaris Shipping and its CEO Kim Wan-Jung were found guilty of failing to report defects with the vessel and he was sentenced to six months in jail. Polaris in 2021 scrapped the last of its converted ships, but last year South Korean prosecutors filed a new round of charges against the CEO of the company and six employees at the urging of the families of the lost crewmembers.
“The tribunal's decision is expected to affect civil and criminal proceedings related to the sinking,” writes Yonhap. They said that the trial is still proceeding on the charges brought in 2022 against the six individuals and other cases are also ongoing related to the casualty.
The Korea Register of Shipping was also investigated but the tribunal acquitted the class society. Yonhap reports that the decision said it was “difficult to recognize the causal relationship between the ship inspection agency and the sinking of the Stellar Daisy.”
The loss of the Stellar Daisy brought renewed attention and criticism to the conversion of old tankers to bulkers. The industry has abandoned the practice and in 2020 Brazilian iron ore mining company Vale announced that it would begin phasing out all the converted ships from its operations. BIMCO commented that the high cost of maintenance was dooming the class of ships making them uneconomical to operate.