Sierra Leone: Shipment of iron ore


Published: 27 October 2014

The situation

Members will be aware that Sierra Leone is one of the countries presently affected by the outbreak of the Ebola virus, but it is also a country that saw (until the outbreak became very serious) a significant development in its mining industry and particularly the export of iron ore. This cargo being of significant interest to China as it continues to seek to diversify its resource sourcing.

The Association would like to highlight the following issues that may be of concern to members considering lifting such a cargo:

  1. liquefaction risks
  2. the present Ebola outbreak

Mining and shipment operations in Sierra Leone

In the following illustration members can see how some of the mining and shipment is organised in Sierra Leone for iron ore:

Illustration of London Mining Operation provided by the Club's correspondents

Correspondents advise that the cargo offered for shipment comes from locations several hours inland and may be transported by the Port of Pepel by rail or to the River Port of Thofeyim by truck.

Typically the cargo is then loaded on to barges for further transhipment on to blue water bulkers at the Freetown anchorage.

Our correspondents advise that some of the locations involved are remote and may not always be easily accessed.

Furthermore some shippers have not been co-operating with requests to inspect cargo stockpiles prior to the start of the transportation operation. This has made it difficult to verify the nature and condition of the cargo.

With respect to local knowledge and expertise, that may not be on the same level as one may find in more developed places (say Australia) and communication barriers may exist. This can cause delays when inspections and surveys are undertaken. It may also impact the quality of any cargo documentation tendered.

In practice the vessel only gets to see the actual cargo when barges come along side for loading and it is at this point that a somewhat belated quality control exercise becomes possible.

There are no independent laboratories available in Sierra Leone where cargo samples can be taken for testing.

Liquefaction risks

The Association has advised previously in detail on the risks pertaining to mineral ore cargo liquefaction. Iron ore is one of the cargoes that has given rise to most of the serious incidents in the last ten years, along side nickel ore and to some extent fluorspar.

Members are also encouraged to download the Pocket Guide for Masters.

Correspondents have advised that there have been some occasions where cargo tendered for loading had excess moisture content / TML issues. This lead to specific barges being rejected at the loading anchorage and cargo was topped up with replacement barges.

The reason why the cargo in Sierra Leone may be too wet is not believed to be due to the cargo as mined, but rather exposure to significant rainfall affecting it in storage and during transit.

Impact of the Ebola outbreak

Sierra Leone is the most affected country after Liberia in this present outbreak. The Government has previously used a nation wide curfew as a way of seeking to control the spread of the infection.

At present it is not believed that the main mining operations have been directly infected, with the mines having sought to take precautions to prevent an outbreak in their locations.

The outbreak has, however, meant that travel inside Sierra Leone can be affected, which may mean it is more difficult to have surveyors attend in case a problem does arise. Furthermore it may be extremely difficult to bring in outside expertise should that be required or to send any samples abroad for testing.

Given that loading is typically undertaken at anchorage from barges, it does mean that vessels are at a lower risk than if they were to be at a berth. In any event the Association has provided advice for bulker operators that can be accessed here and which may assist in managing the risks.

Loss prevention advice

Members will need to combine a prudent approach to the risks of liquefaction with respect to Sierra Leone iron ore shipments, just as much as if they were loading this type of cargo elsewhere.

At present Sierra Leone is additionally challenging due to the Ebola outbreak and members should seek to advance prepare accordingly if they plan to lift cargo from this country.

If members have any queries or concerns, they are asked to contact the Association.