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Chinese Boxship is Primary Suspect in Baltic Pipeline Breach

Broken anchor recovered from the scene of the pipeline breach (Finland NBI)
Damaged anchor recovered from the scene of the pipeline breach. Note broken fluke and stock (Finland NBI)

Published Oct 24, 2023 2:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, Finnish investigators confirmed that they were looking at the movements of a Russian icebreaker and a Chinese boxship in connection with serious "mechanical damage" to a gas pipeline under the Baltic. On Tuesday, they announced that a broken anchor was found near the pipeline - and the Chinese vessel is now the prime suspect.

AIS data shows that the Chinese container vessel NewNew Polar Bear and the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Sevmorput both crossed over the Balticconnector pipeline at about 0112-0120 hours on October 8. At about the same time, a seismographic station in Finland detected a faint tremor, and seismologists pinpointed the origin to a position near the pipeline crossing. The gas pipeline lost pressure and had to be shut down by about 0200 that morning. 

NewNew Polar Bear later called at Arkhangelsk, Russia, where she was photographed entering the harbor and appeared to be missing her port-side anchor. The image also shows that at least one stack of containers had toppled to starboard (upper left).

 

Finnish investigators released ROV imagery of the damage to the pipeline on Tuesday, and it appears to show that the protective concrete mat over the pipe was torn away (below). 

ROV video frames showing damage to the Balticconnector pipeline and its protective concrete mat (Finland NBI)

In a press conference, Finland's National Bureau of Investigation said that it now believes NewNew Polar Bear caused the breach. Its examination of the scene found a miles-long drag trail of up to 12 feet wide leading up to the pipeline; then a broken anchor, a few meters from the location of the breach (image at top); and then a narrower drag trail leading away from the scene, matching the dimensions of the anchor stock. 

"In addition, we were not able to visually confirm that the vessel had [two anchors] in place, which helped to focus doubts on [NewNew Polar Bear]," Risto Lohi, Director General of the NBI, told reporters. 

Lohi said that NewNew Polar Bear had been contacted in connection with the casualty and was "not willing to cooperate" in the investigation. Since it was not in Finland's territorial seas, the Finnish authorities had no way to compel it to comply. (The flag state, Hong Kong, could authorize a boarding on the high seas.)

Chinese authorities are cooperating with the NBI, and "there is still a lot to be done" in the investigation, Lohi said. Officials are working to determine whether the casualty was an accident or whether it was intentional. 

NewNew Polar Bear is still at Archangelsk. Finland has had frosty relations with the Russian government since Helsinki's decision to join NATO earlier this year, and Lohi did not discuss whether Russian authorities were assisting in the investigation.