Coast Guard Station Miami launched MH-65 aircrews Monday to search for shipping containers lost at sea off of Florida's east coast.
The 340-foot barge, Columbia Elizabeth, was undertow and en route to Puerto Rico when the crew of an assisting tug boat noticed "several containers hanging over the side" of the barge's port side. Columbia Elizabeth was diverted to the Port of Palm Beach by the U.S.-flagged, Capt. Lantham, the same tug that reported the toppled over containers, for further investigation.
After mooring at the Port of Palm Beach, a Coast Guard press release reported up to 25 containers were discovered to be missing; some of which the Coast Guard confirms contained batteries. It is believed the containers were lost somewhere between Port Canaveral, and West Palm Beach, Florida.
By Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard's aerial search had yet to locate any of the missing containers reports Florida's Sun-Sentenial newspaper.
With the offshore search underway, crews back at the Port of Palm Beach continued to unload the Columbia Elizabeth in order to reach the ship's deck in hope of determining what caused the cargo to slip overboard.
"Some of them got crushed and some of them [went] over the side," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said.
Doss went on to say that losing containers during ocean-transit is not a rarity, especially during rough conditions. A report published by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2014 estimates up to, and possibly more than, 10,000 of these containers are lost to the ocean each year.
Though not a staggering number in an industry that ships 5 to 6 million containers a day, the accumulation of these non-degrading containers poses an environmental concern.
"If the containers contain hazardous materials like batteries ... then they definitely are a problem," Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society told the Sentenial.
While the exact cargo lost remains to be determined, Jacksonville-based TOTE Marine has confirmed the Columbia Elizabeth was under the company's charter. Servicing North America, Puerto Rico, and Alaska, the maritime shipping company made headlines recently after the loss of the El Faro and 33 crew members during Hurricane Joaquin. The El Faro was also under TOTE charter at the time of sinking.
It is possible that TOTE could face fines due to the environmental impact of the Columbia Elizabeth's lost cargo, however that is yet to be determined this early in the investigation.