At least 21 shipping containers fall off Young Brothers barge

  • Courtesy of KAI KAHELE State Sen. Kai Kahele said stevedores at Hilo Harbor told him that the layout of containers on the barge was unusual.

  • Courtesy of JOE SWICK Hakalau resident Joe Swick photographed a Young Brothers container adrift in the sea off of Pepeekeo Point Monday afternoon.

  • Courtesy of KAI KAHELE A stack of shipping containers that evidently fell over on the Young Brothers barge Ho‘omaka Hou on Monday morning.

At least 21 containers fell off a Young Brothers barge en route to Hilo Harbor on Monday morning, but the cause has yet to be confirmed.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported Monday afternoon that at about 4:30 a.m., 21 40-foot containers fell from the Young Brothers barge Ho‘omaka Hou while it traveled from Honolulu to Hilo Harbor.

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As of Monday afternoon, nine of the containers had been located, while another dozen remained missing. Most of the containers that were accounted for were found adrift along the Hamakua Coast, but at least one container was adrift in Hilo Bay.

The Coast Guard statement reported that the crew of neither the barge nor its tug realized the containers were missing until the barge docked at Hilo Harbor.

A terse statement from Chris Martin, Young Brothers’ director of terminal operations, confirmed the incident but did not elaborate on the details of the case.

“We have deployed a team of investigators to work closely with state and federal officials in determining the cause of the incident,” the statement read. “Once the site has been declared safe, we will determine the number of containers impacted and contact affected customers. Young Brothers has a salvage company in place to assist with developing and executing a plan to retrieve the containers.”

However, at least one Big Island lawmaker thinks the incident is emblematic of East Hawaii’s need for more frequent barge deliveries.

State Sen. Kai Kahele said he is “deeply concerned” about the containers for several reasons. First, the contents of the fallen containers have not yet been identified, and could contain hazardous materials that could be dangerous if the containers are breached.

Second, Kahele said the drifting containers can interfere with East Hawaii’s shipping and fishing lanes, and can do severe damage to vessels that strike them.

However, Kahele’s biggest concern is why the incident happened at all. While Young Brothers has not yet determined the cause, Kahele said stevedores at Hilo Harbor who unloaded the barge told him they had never seen the barge loaded in that way before.

“They said they were stacked five high at the stern, that there were five layers of containers stacked at the stern, and they’d never seen that before,” Kahele said.

In addition, Kahele said he took photographs of the barge early Monday morning and said the lower containers at the stern of the barge appeared to have been partially crushed, apparently destabilizing the rest of the stack.

Kahele also said he received information from a source whose identity he did not disclose claiming that the barge was ordered to halt outside of Hilo Bay for some time after arriving, which he speculated might have been done to avoid overtime.

Kahele speculated that the incident was caused by overloading the barge, which he suggested might have been the result of Young Brothers’ changing its shipping schedules.

In May, the state Public Utilities Commission approved a request from the shipping company to temporarily reduce its weekly barge schedules for Hawaii and Maui counties in response to decreasing cargo volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, Young Brothers barges have only arrived in Hilo once per week instead of twice, which has placed strain on farmers who rely on more frequent shipping, Kahele said.

Kahele said the county ultimately requires two barge arrivals a week to remain healthy, and the state Legislature — which reconvened Monday — is considering a proposed $25 million bailout for Young Brothers that could reinstate the twice-weekly shipments.

“But there’s also a question of just how solvent are they?” Kahele said. “From what I understand, they haven’t been in the best financial straits, even before COVID.”

Kahele said he is unsure what sort of penalty should be leveled at Young Brothers should they be determined to have caused the incident, but noted that any penalty would be a “double-edged sword” because the Big Island and the other neighbor islands rely heavily on the company to survive.

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“Bottom line is, we need two sails a week again,” Kahele said. “(The stevedores) said there were at least 30 to 40 containers and about as many vehicles that didn’t make it onto the barge for Saturday’s sail from Honolulu, which I think proves that there’s still a huge demand for that on the Big Island.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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