Rhine chems face week of disruption due to water levels, accident

14 January 2011 15:39  [Source: ICIS news]

The Lorelei on the RhineLONDON (ICIS)--Shipping chemicals along the river Rhine in Germany could be severely disputed over the next week as high water levels have forced the closure of traffic between Cologne and Mainz. Rescue efforts are continuing after a ship carrying 2,378 tonnes of sulphuric acid capsized, an official said on Friday.

Florian Krekel, spokesman for shipping authority Wasser- und Schifffahrtsamt Bingen, said small amounts of sulphuric acid had started to leak from the ship, which was en route from German chemical major BASF’s chemicals production hub in Ludwigshafen to Antwerp, Belgium, but that so far the environmental impact was very small.

He said a pontoon had been installed to anchor the vessel and that two cranes that would be used to lift the ship from the water would arrive in three to four days. The ship capsized at around 05:00 local time (04:00 GMT) on Thursday,

Two of the ship’s crew of four remained missing, despite divers searching the waters and the vessel, Krekel said.

The Lorelei, where the ship capsized, is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine near St Goarshausen, Germany, which soars some 120m above the waterline. It marks the narrowest part of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea.


A very strong current and rocks below the waterline have caused many boat accidents there, although the cause of this particular accident was not yet known.

The accident has added to difficulties caused by a sharp rise in water levels caused by a sudden increase in temperatures, and the around 200km (124 mile) stretch between Cologne and Mainz was expected to be closed at least until Monday 17 January.

Water levels had reached maximum shipping levels at Kaub, a critical point for shipments along the river, and at Bingen, levels were expected to reach a maximum later today.

“Reopening is not an option,” said Krekel, adding that if water levels were to drop, there would be a controlled reopening of the river, allowing single small ships to go upstream from Monday at the earliest.

“I don’t think we will open for ships going downstream,” he said.

This could have an effect on shipments on the river to and from BASF’s major chemicals hub in Ludwigshafen, and would also affect other chemical companies along the route to Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Sources in the methanol market said prices had slipped by €3/tonne ($4/tonne) this week to €255/tonne FOB (free on board) Rotterdam, possibly as a result of an increase in stocks at the port.

“I’m not surprised [by €255/tonne] when you see the problems on the Rhine. It’s affecting consumers from Cologne upwards. It [the Rhine] has been closed since Sunday…. It’s possible that it has caused a build-up in Rotterdam,” said the buyer.

With many German methanol consumers suffering from restricted access to supplies, both buyers and producers warned there could be a risk of material building up in the Rotterdam area, putting a strain on storage space and possibly forcing prices to soften.

However, others said the possibility of such an oversupply was exaggerated, saying material would be moved by trucks and railcars instead.

One producer in Germany that transports primarily by rail, said it had noticed a slight uptick in demand, and linked this to the transport problems on the waterways.

One source from French chemical company Rhodia said there were already barges all along the Rhine moored and waiting to get through the locks and now the spillage had made the situation much worse.

“On the Rhine, barges can’t pass because of the accident. If it does not open by Tuesday, we will not have enough feedstock. We’re trying to do our best with trucks and railcars but the ships are piling up and they can’t pass where the ship [capsized],” said an acetone buyer based in Germany.

The Rhine is an important European shipping route for chemicals and other commodities, including minerals, coal and oil products.

($1 = €0.75)

Additional reporting by Ross Yeo and Julia Meehan

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By: Hilde Ovrebekk
+44 20 8652 3214

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