Guantánamo-bound barge loses cargo into ocean

All 22 shipping containers that toppled off a U.S. Navy contract barge bound for the Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, no longer presenting a seafaring hazard, the Coast Guard said Wednesday.

Moreover, the small amount of hazardous material in the containers is so deep that it shouldn’t present an environmental hazard.

“I wouldn’t want to be some organism down there on the bottom of the ocean at 1,000 feet ... with a container sitting on you,” Capt David McClellan, chief of the prevention department at Coast Guard sector Miami said Wednesday afternoon.

But any immediate danger had passed.

The tugboat Spence was towing the 91-foot-long Atlantic Trader barge from Jacksonville to Guantánamo when the mishap occurred Monday 18 miles east of Key Biscayne, the Coast Guard said. Ten heavily loaded, less buoyant containers sank immediately. Some others, including well-sealed refrigerated containers, floated for more than a day before finally settling on the sea floor by Wednesday afternoon.

Because the cargo was so deep, McClellan said, there'll be no effort to salvage it.

The barge was towed into Port Everglades, drawing gawkers to watch workers gingerly removing the surviving containers, including those that had collapsed onto themselves.

“It looks like fallen dominoes,” said Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy, declaring it “a very unusual situation.”

One container that broke open revealed a load of beer bound for the base as part of a twice-monthly resupply mission. Another container was crushed aboard the barge and could not be salvaged, Navy base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said from Guantánamo.

Hazardous waste was definitely lost in the accident, McClellan said, including compressed gasses, combustible liquids, aerosols, refrigerants, batteries and flammable adhesives.

Also lost, said Wirfel were supplies bound for the base commissary, office supply depot and guest officer quarters. No private “household goods or personal belongings” were lost overboard, she added.

Meantime, the Coast Guard launched what could be a lengthy investigation of the accident and whether any blame would be assigned to either the firm that loaded and secured the containers or the mariners moving the barge.

If negligence is found, someone could be fined, or a mariner could lose their license.

While the Pentagon occasionally has used cargo aircraft to bring perishable supplies to the base since it opened the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo in 2002, the barge has long been the U.S. Navy’s primary resupply method.

The barge typically pulls into Guantánamo twice a month bringing everything from automobiles and bicycles belonging to sailors and their families to the alcohol on the shelves of the Navy commissary, Irish pub and officer’s club.

The base advised residents that the barge was expected to depart Fort Lauderdale on Friday, bring the items that survived this week’s mishap within the week and “resume its normal operating schedule after this shipment.”

“It would need to be gone by the weekend because we have cruise ships coming in to where it’s berthed,” Port Everglades’ Kennedy said.

While rare, shipping containers do sometimes fall off vessels. In January 2010, around 30 containers fell off the Seaboard Intrepid, a cargo ship that was 30 miles off Key West.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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