By Keith Wallis
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A fire-ravaged ship loaded with hazardous chemicals has become a maritime football in the north Pacific, with Japan and South Korea unwilling to give it refuge even though they risk a wider environmental disaster if it sinks.
The plight of the Maritime Maisie, a chemical tanker which has spent seven weeks being towed in waters between the two Asian neighbors, highlights the lack of global consensus on designating ports as safe-havens for ships in distress.
The two countries are worried about the risk of a spill or environmental pollution at port, sources said.
The tanker, a 44,000 deadweight-ton vessel the size of nearly two football fields, collided with another ship nine nautical miles off Busan, South Korea, on December 29, said Ying Jinghua, fleet director of MSI Ship Management, which manages the tanker's day-to-day operation, and other shipping sources.
The accident caused a fire when a cargo tank holding the chemical acrylonitrile ruptured. The ship, owned by Aurora Tankers, part of Singapore's IMC Group, was carrying 29,337 metric tons of acrylonitrile, used to make plastics and synthetic rubber, and other chemicals, Ying and the sources said.
The 27 crew on the tanker were rescued and the ship, ablaze until January 16, drifted into Japanese territorial waters before tow lines could be secured. About 20,000 metric tons of chemicals and 640 metric tons of heavy fuel oil still remain onboard the ship, two sources with knowledge of the incident said.
The Hong Kong-registered ship has been towed between South Korea and Japan since December 30 amid efforts to persuade either of the countries to provide a place of refuge, where its remaining cargo could be safely offloaded to another ship.
Despite approaches by the Hong Kong government's Marine Department, salvage teams and the ship's management company, the South Korean and Japanese governments have yet to yield.
Shipping executives, including representatives from salvage company Nippon Salvage, will meet with Korean and Japanese officials in the next two days to further discuss a place of refuge for the tanker, Ying of MSI Ship Management said.
South Korea and Japan are members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a United Nations body that adopted non-binding guidelines on places of refuge for ships a decade ago.
The IMO move came after a number of ships, notably in Europe, broke up and sank causing extensive pollution when countries refused to provide a safe berth.
These included the oil tanker Prestige that broke up and sank off the coast of Galicia, Spain, in November 2002, spilling 60,000 metric tons of oil and polluting almost 3,000 kilometers of coastline.
"Member states are failing to meet the spirit of their obligations," said Tim Wilkins, Asia Pacific regional manager with tanker owners lobby group INTERTANKO.
'LOCAL CONCERNS TAKE PRECEDENCE'
Hong Kong's Marine Department wrote to South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries seeking a refuge for the ship for the second time earlier this month, said Stephen Li, Marine Department senior surveyor.
The department has yet to hear a response, while Japan has already declined to help, Li told Reuters.
The Japanese Coast Guard said they could not comment immediately.
"The Korean government is discussing how to deal with this matter and nothing has been decided," an official at the country's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
The ministry told Hong Kong's Marine Department a month ago Japan was obliged to offer a suitable place to transfer cargo and fuel because the tanker drifted into Japanese territorial waters.
Once the chemicals and fuel were offloaded, the ministry said South Korea could talk about allowing the ship into Korea for repairs, the source with knowledge of the incident said.
Comité Maritime International, a Belgian umbrella group of maritime law organizations, floated proposals in 2009 to create a binding IMO convention on places of refuge.
But the UN's IMO rejected it, saying other measures - including a Nairobi convention on the removal of wrecks which comes into force in 2015 - were sufficient.
The place of refuge issue in Asia will figure prominently at a meeting next month of the Asian Shipowners' Forum, which represents Asian shipowner groups, said Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association.
"The (IMO) guidelines are only guidelines. Local politics and concerns take precedence and it becomes difficult" to implement them, said Bowring.
(Additional reporting by Meeyoung Cho in SEOUL and Osamu Tsukimori in TOKYO; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)