A year ago there was a nurdle spill in the Mississippi. No blame was affixed but the ship, the city and the port were held responsible. Now the NTSB has found the culprit.

An unexpected tornado-like weather event caused a container ship to crash as it was unloading at the Port of New Orleans in Aug. 2020, causing a massive spill of plastic pellets known as “nurdles” into the Mississippi River, the National Transport Safety Board said in a report Thursday. Crane operators at the port’s Napoleon Avenue wharf and crew from the ship, the Maltese-flagged Bianca, reported extreme high winds “that came on ‘in seconds’ during heavy rains,” the report said. “Rains were heavy enough to completely obscure the visibility of security cameras at the terminal,” the report continued. “Although the closest official weather station recorded winds peaking at 31 mph, a vessel located very close to the accident reported a wind gust at 73 mph. The Bianca’s master said that the storm was, ‘in the form of a tornado’.” Most of the ship’s 16 mooring lines detached and containers being lifted by the port’s gantry cranes crashed into the vessel. The port’s cranes sustained about $15 million worth of damage, while damage to the ship was put at about $60,000. There was one minor injury, to a crane operator. But the more lasting effect of the accident was the spill into the river of hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets — also known as nurdles — from a 40-foot container that dropped from the Bianca to the bottom of the river.

The disturbance hit the port and the crane operator was put in danger but the damage was the container that broke up. Local groups responded as the nurdles surfaced and washed up on the river bank.

The nurdles washed up on both banks of the river soon after the spill and new waves of pellets were turning up at the mouth of the Mississippi months later. The vessel was operated by French shipping conglomerate CMA CGM and managed by Danos Shipping Co. The French owner arranged several weeks after the spill for a small clean-up crew, who used brooms and nets to corral some of the nurdles. However, as the spill was deemed to be of non-hazardous material, it fell through the cracks of various regulatory agencies.

The nurdles are harmful to the water and the fish but while this was recognized no agency took control.

Plastic pollution has been found to be a major source of harm to the marine environment and to sea life. An estimated 250,000 tons of nurdles and other microplastics enter the rivers and oceans each year, absorb toxins and are responsible for the deaths of millions of sea creatures, environmental studies have shown. In the event, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality, and the Environmental Protection Agency, all said it was outside their purview. The NTSB in its investigative role determines the probable cause of the accident but does not assign blame. In its report, the agency said that probable cause was “the sudden onset of unforecasted severe winds, likely originating from the outflow of a thunderstorm-generated downburst.” The report added that “these winds can easily cause damage similar to that of a EF0 (65–85-mph winds) or even EF1 (86–110-mph winds) tornado and are sometimes misinterpreted as tornadoes.” NTSB determined that all the crane operators and the vessel’s crew were properly trained and had been following procedure. The wind came on suddenly and couldn’t have been foreseen, the agency report concluded.

The nurdles spread and now, after knowing how is occurred, are there plans to help prevent this again? But can we prevent these meteorological events? Probably not.

Nurdle spill was weather caused
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