Chemical spill closes port

A chemical leak in a wheat-carrying cargo ship yesterday caused an evacuation of Port Taranaki.

The chemical, fumigation agent aluminium phosphide, was in a barrel in a forward compartment of the cargo vessel Poavosa Wisdom, which arrived at the port from Australia at 11.25am yesterday.

Just two hours later what appeared to be smoke could be seen pouring from the front of the ship and firefighters used a ladder to climb aboard the vessel.

Harbour master John Ireland yesterday said there had been no fire and the ''smoke'' was from a chemical leak.

''Port staff and firefighters had been evacuated as a precaution. It's a half drum of chemical. There is no fire. It is a chemical reaction,'' he said.

The 21 crew members of the ship had also been evacuated.

No-one was injured in the incident, but five people who were most exposed to the chemical were taken to Taranaki Base Hospital as a precaution.

New Plymouth senior fire station officer Maurice Kemsley said eight fire engines and a command unit attended the incident.

The order to evacuate was given at around 2pm and fire crews quickly set up a cordon on Breakwater Rd, diverting traffic from the port.

Trucks carrying fertiliser and logs to the port were forced to park on the side of the road outside the facility's main gates.

Ryan Gilmour, 13, had been watching the incident from Port View Bowling Club, where his grandfather was competing in the Taranaki Open Fours bowls.

''At about 2 o'clock a siren sounded like the ones the volunteer fire brigades use. After that we saw the firefighters starting coming off the ship. That's when we knew they were evacuating,'' he said.

His grandmother, who did not want to be named, said she had watched the escalating drama through a pair of binoculars.

''I could see all the people, the fire brigade, the police. I could see the guys with breathing apparatus going in, when the decontamination trucks arrived.''

When I got here at about 11.15am I said, 'what's that smell?'. But it was obviously coming from that boat. It was a real pungent smell,'' she said.

Fire crews did not fully evacuate the site but retreated to an area about 100 metres from the ship where several were seen undergoing decontamination washdowns.

The port was reopened at 6.25pm.

Mr Ireland believed this was the first port evacuation in 15 years.

There were at least six other ships at the port including the Torvager, which arrived on Sunday to load methanol.

Two of the ships downwind of the Poavosa Wisdom had been shifted during the emergency. 

Taranaki Daily News