A Car-Carrying Cargo Ship Burning Near a Dutch Bird Habitat Stokes Environmental Worries

By Mike Corder | July 28, 2023

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A cargo ship packed with cars burned close to a world-renowned bird habitat off the Dutch coast Thursday as firefighters and salvage crews waited for the flames from a fire that started more than a day earlier to subside before attempting to board the vessel.

The Fremantle Highway was sailing from the German port of Bremerhaven to Singapore when it caught fire in the North Sea shortly before midnight Tuesday about 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of the Dutch island of Ameland, sparking fears of an environmental disaster.

One crew member died and others were injured early Wednesday. The entire crew, made up of 21 Indian nationals, has been evacuated from the ship. The cause of the fire hasn’t been established.

The coast guard of the Netherlands said “the situation at the moment is stable.” The agency released a photo after a flyover Thursday that showed smoke still pouring from the ship and drifting low over the slate-gray sea.

The coast guard said late Thursday afternoon that crews were using the tide to turn the ship so it would “drift east again with the support of a tugboat.” The maneuver would allow the ship to continue floating between two shipping lanes and remain some 16 kilometers (10 miles) off the Dutch coast.

“Because of the wind and current, it is not possible to keep the ship in one place,” the agency said.

The Japanese-owned ship is close to a chain of islands and the World Heritage- listed Wadden Sea, an important habitat for migratory birds.

The Dutch coast guard said Wednesday that the vessel was carrying 2,857 cars, including 25 electric cars. Some reports Thursday suggested there might be more than that, but the coast guard said it could not provide confirmation.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the possible dangers of electric vehicle battery fires, The hazard stems from thermal runaway, a chemical reaction that causes uncontrolled battery temperature and pressure increases.

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said she couldn`t rule out the possibility of the burning ship sinking.

“A totally normal car transport by sea could turn into an environmental catastrophe of unknown proportions,” Lemke said in a statement. “This fills me with deep concern.”

She said that if the ship sinks, “large quantities of fuel and other environmentally harmful pollutants from the cargo ship’s load could contaminate the sensitive ecosystem of the North Sea extensively. The unique Wadden Sea National Park is in serious danger. That must be prevented with all our resources.”

The burning vessel had been drifting west toward the island of Terschelling and slowly heading away from Borkum, the westernmost of the German East Frisian islands. Germany sent a ship that doused the sides of the Fremantle Highway with water on Wednesday to keep it as cool as possible.

The coast guard said that was no longer happening “because unnecessary amounts of water must be prevented from getting on board. This endangers the stability of the ship.” It said the fire was burning more intensely when the ship was cooled Wednesday.

The Netherlands on Wednesday sent a ship equipped with special booms to contain oil spills to the area as a precaution.

Infrastructure and Waterways Minister Mark Harbers said in a letter to lawmakers that if there is a leak, the “current and anticipated wind and wave direction for the coming days are such that any contamination will spread to the north, and therefore not to the Wadden Islands.”

The fire in the North Sea isn`t the first to break out in a car-carrying cargo ship.

Earlier this month, it took firefighters nearly a week to extinguish a similar blaze in a car transport ship in Newark, New Jersey. Two firefighters were killed and five others were injured battling the flames.

In March 2022, a large cargo vessel carrying cars from Germany to the United States sank in the mid-Atlantic, 13 days after a fire broke out on board. The Felicity Ace sank about 400 kilometers (250 miles) off Portugal’s Azores Islands as it was being towed after a salvage team had put out the fire.

–Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

Top photo: A boat hoses down the smoke from a fire which broke out on a freight ship in the North Sea, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of the Dutch island of Ameland, Wednesday, July 26, 2023. A fire on the freight ship Fremantle Highway, carrying nearly 3,000 cars, was burning out of control Wednesday in the North Sea, and the Dutch coast guard said it was working to save the vessel from sinking close to an important habitat for migratory birds. (Kustwacht Nederland/Coast Guard Netherlands via AP)

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