If there is a wrong way to do something, then someone will do it.

–Capt. Edward A. Murphy, Jr., USAF

Accidents Will Happen

The first look at the location map of the proposed North Carolina International Terminal–next to a nuclear plant and adjoining the “blast zone” of an ammunition depot–suggests to many an inviting target for terrorist attack. It is not possible to inspect every one of the thousands of containers arriving on container ships, most from the Far East and many from the Middle East. Anything could happen. Such inspections that do occur are done after the containers arrive.

Even a terrorist attack with a nuclear device is conceivable. In a 2005 report, the Congressional Research Service pointed out that possibility. A Hiroshima-type bomb is a fairly simple device, within the capability of a terrorist group. It would not require plutonium, and would fit comfortably inside a 20-foot container.

But anything could also happen without help from a terrorist. Hazardous and explosive materials are routinely handled by common carriers–shipping lines, trucks, railroads. Intermodal containers are used more and more extensively, in a general shift from bulk cargoes to containerized freight. There are special containers for bulk commodities–many very hazardous–in solid, liquid and gas states, some under pressure. A special problem with container terminals is the concentration of such materials. The preliminary design for the North Carolina International Terminal provides for storage of 47,680 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), which is about 28,600 containers, given the usual mix of 40-foot and 20-foot containers.

Four thousand eight hundred forty TEU of space would be dedicated to hazardous materials. That is about 2900 containers. At typical loadings, perhaps 58,000 tons–116,000,000 pounds–of hazardous material in those containers. (The figures for container storage capacity are in the CH2MHill, Inc. Infrastructure Report.)

All of this next to a nuclear plant and an ammunition depot.

Here are some examples of unfortunate events with ships and ports, but none, except perhaps Texas City in 1947, come close to the potential for disaster in Southport:

Black Tom was an island in New York harbor connected by a pier to the mainland at Jersey City. It was used for shipment of munitions to Europe at the beginning of the First World War. In 1916, a German saboteur placed an incendiary device the size of a fountain pen on the Johnson 17, a barge moored at the pier. The resulting fire and explosion obliterated Black Tom.

El Estero was a cargo vessel used for munitions in the Second World War. While at a dock in New York Harbor in 1943, it caught fire. The fire could not be extinguished, so the ship was towed out into the harbor, where it blew up.

The S.S. E.A. Bryan, a Liberty ship, was being loaded with munitions at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine on the Sacramento River near San Francisco Bay in 1944, when it blew up, destroying two other vessels and most of the buildings at the port. Three hundred twenty men were killed, but only 51 could be identified. The shock registered 3.4 on the Richter scale at nearby Berkeley.

This incident had something to do with the choice of a remote and sparsely populated area for the Military Ocean Terminal constructed at Sunny Point on the Cape Fear River in 1952–1955.

The SS Grandcamp, a former Liberty ship, was taking on a load of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, in Texas City, near Galveston, in 1947 when the material spontaneously warmed sufficiently to burn. The fire could not be extinguished, and the ship exploded. That spread the fire to the nearby High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate, and that exploded.

The two explosions destroyed the seaport, including a nearby chemical plant, and killed 581 people. Windows were blown out in Houston, 40 miles away.

MV SSG Edward A. Carter, Jr., is the container ship that caught fire at the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point on the Cape Fear River in 2001, while loaded with 1200 containers of ammunition. The fire was confined to the engine room, but it took two crewmen’s lives and required heroic efforts by the Sunny Point fire department, assisted by local volunteers, to extinguish.

SSG Edward A. Carter Jr. at Sunny Point

The Lehmann Foster brought 327,000 pounds of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), one of the most powerful explosives available, to the State Port at Morehead City, North Carolina, for onward shipment to destinations in the Midwest. Early in the morning of January 12, 2010, a stevedore punctured nine containers of the explosive with a fork-lift truck. Although the material leaked from the containers, it did not explode. Emergency response teams from the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, the US Coast Guard and local agencies secured the spill. The State Port was closed for most of three days, and a large part of Morehead City evacuated.

In the course of the response, the integrity of other containers was found to have been compromised by stacking, but those containers had not leaked.

The 80 grams of PETN Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas bomber” wore in his underwear on Northwest flight 253 were considered enough to blow a hole in the side of the aircraft. PETN was also the material carried in his shoe by Richard Reid on American Airlines flight 63 in December 2001. The “radius of effect” of the 327,000 pounds of PETN at Morehead City would have been three to four miles, which would take in all of Morehead City.

PETN is a class 1.1 explosive, in the classification system of the United Nations Organization (UNO) Hazard Class and Division. The ports operated by the North Carolina State Ports Authority at Morehead City and Wilmington commonly handle cargoes of UNO classes 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, and 1.5. (Class 1.2 is military ammunition).

Alas, accidents are common. In 2009, North Carolina reported to the US Department of Transportation 394 serious incidents with hazardous materials.

Safety precautions at the container terminal proposed for Southport would be extensive and rigorous. But things happen. And those containers of “hazmats” have to get to their destinations–on trucks and trains passing through our communities.


What will follow will totally destroy the quality of life in Southport.

Racketeering, loansharking, buying and selling of stolen property,

extortion, drug selling, as well as prostitution.

-Joe Blik, retired Detective, New York City Police Department


The US Fish and Wildlife Service, in its comments to the Corps of Engineers for the reconnaissance study for channel dredging for the proposed container terminal at Southport, expressed concern about the conversion of eastern Brunswick County from “residential use to with commerce based on recreation and tourism to an industrial center and transportation hub.”

But more than the fish and wildlife will suffer. The effect of a busy port and attendant truck traffic can only be appreciated by a visit to the areas of Long Beach, California, and Elizabeth, New Jersey, adjoining the only two container terminals in the United States larger than the container terminal the North Carolina State Ports Authority plans for Southport. Smoke, noise, noxious industrial activity. All of the attributes of busy urban industrial areas that the residents of Brunswick County have moved here to avoid.

Such areas foster hostility, not friendship. Suspicion, not trust. Dissension, not cooperation. Deceit, not honesty. Despair, not hope. Filth. Decay. Crime. Poverty.

This is not just anecdotal observation. Dr. Lisa Grobar of California State University at Long Beach has measured the effects in ten port districts in the United States, and reported them in the journal Growth and Change.

On the bright side, there will be employment opportunities for policemen and detectives and drug enforcement agents and fireman and security guards and medical technicians and customs inspectors and prosecutors. More construction workers, too. We shall need more bars and more jails.