The devastation wreaked by the MV X-Press Pearl, which came to a fatal end in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, is on its way to becoming the biggest man-made maritime disaster in Sri Lankan history. It has been preceded by a number of others including the most recent one, the MT New Diamond in September last year.  The New Diamond was transporting around two million barrels of crude oil when a fire broke out in the engine room when it was 65 kilometres off Sangaman Kanda Point along the east coast of Sri Lanka.  After burning intermittently for almost a week, the fire was finally extinguished but not before the waters around it were spiked with a diesel oil spill of about 1 km long. It prompted calls for better disaster preparedness.

In the case of the X-Press Pearl, bruised by a raging fire which started more than two weeks ago while anchored nine nautical miles from the Colombo harbour and battered by cyclonic winds and rain, the ship has met its watery grave.  The sea level in the location where it currently is after it was towed into deeper watersis about 20 meters deep, enough for the ship’s stern to submerge and rest on the seabed.  The ship’s bridge, at its highest point, rises to 44 meters.  Despite its misfortunes, this part of the ship may continue to stand tall unless it eventually comes to rest on its side.

Marine experts have criticised the decision to tow the ship to deeper waters because salvors from the Netherlands who had inspected the ship had found it had sprung a leak and sea water was seeping in. It was done pursuant to an order given by the President after a meeting he had with environmentalists, the Navy and others. Dr. Dan Gunasekara an expert in national maritime and logistics has said the ship should not have been mobilized under these circumstances and a ship to ship transfer should have taken place to take out the oil in the distressed vessel through a pipe line. In any event with the water filling it up the ship did not go far. Moving the vessel can have an impact on Sri Lanka’s compensation claims.  

The possibility of an oil spill has not been eliminated yet and remains a worry. The ship was carrying more than 300 tonnes of bunker oil to fuel its engines and this is likely to have been stored in several tanks. The status of the oil is still unknown. A high level source at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) said some of it may have burnt during the fire.  Marine experts are not so sure and say the only way to find out is to send divers into the wreck for which the current conditions may not be right.  After the ship was moved, even though a short distance, the water around it has been disturbed and made muddy. In case the bunker oil is still intact it will have to be pumped out of the tanks, similar to a ship to ship transfer.

As the situation evolved the fate of the wreck became stark. According to Professor of Coastal Oceanography at the University of Western Australia Charitha Pattiaratchi if it is to remain where it is in the middle of busy shipping lanes, it will have to be marked and other vessels will have to navigate around it.  This option will have its monetary fallout. The other option is to tow the ship away which will not be easy to do.

The X-Press Pearl which was carrying close to 1500 containers of dangerous and other cargo was on a fixed port rotation and was sailing from Jebel Ali to Hamad when a leak, suspected to have originated in the barrels of nitric acid it was carrying and precipitating the fire, was detected.  Contrary to initial reports that the ship was not allowed to berth in Hamad and in Hazari, which was it’s next port of call, the X-Press Pearl had berthed in both these ports for loading and offloading but the leak had not been fixed at either port because of the prevailing ground situation.  According to the SLPA source when the ship was in Hamad it was the Ramadan season and in Hazari, the prevailing Covid conditions prevented the leak from being fixed.

Which is worse, that these two ports did not allow the ship to berth at all or whether they did allow it to berth but did not fix the leak could be academic especially when faced with a humanitarian but also a legal imperative of providing a port of refuge to a vessel with a 25 member crew.  ‘In addition to responsibilities under the fixed port rotation system we have a Port of Refuge and support services obligation and we could not have turned the ship away,’ said the SLPA source. ‘It could have resulted in a criminal prosecution’.

The X-Press Pearl’s next port of call was Colombo and according to the SLPA source ships have to make a declaration of the cargo they are carrying 48 hours before arrival in the port. A point of conjecture however is that although the X-Press Pearl had followed this protocol, the SLPA was not informed of the leak as a result of which it was allowed to enter the port and drop anchor but not berth. It had been the ship’s local agent Sea Consortium Lanka(Pvt) Ltd that had informed the SLPA of the leak.  The SLPA’s officers had eventually boarded the vessel for an inspection and the detection of the leak. Running parallel are rumours that the distressed ship was allowed in because of political influence. Either way, Sri Lanka is in a damned place with an environment which will be indelibly marked by this latest disaster. The ocean surrounding the country will forever be polluted with the vestiges of nearly four billion plastic pellets, or nurdles, which were among the cargo the ship was carrying.  Nearly three billion of these nurdles, used to make plastic bags, have already washed ashore and others will continue to do so over time which will reduce their concentration. According to Professor Pattiaratchi these pellets are non- toxic but are not biodegradeable which will make them remain in the ocean forever.

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) is pushing for accountability for the ecological devastation and the violation of fundamental rights of the local fishing communities whose livelihoods have been put on hold as debris from the ship continue to wash ashore and fears mount about fish having turned toxic from the chemicals that spewed out of the containers. Itfiled a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court for an order directing the authorities to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the fire on board the vessel. It also sought an order directing the Attorney General to prosecute all state officials who have wilfully not performed their statutory and regulatory duties. The petition states that the owners and agents of the vessel have been responsible for causing damages by sailing a ship which is not seaworthy, by failing to reveal the nature of the leak and for the loss of business in the tourism and fishing sectors and pollution to the coastal environment. In addition to the CEJ the petitioners are Hemantha Vithanage who is its Executive Director and Herman Kumara and Aruna Nishantha, representing the fishing communities who have been affected by the disaster. Among the Respondents to the petition are the Marine Environment Protection Authority, Minister of Ports and Shipping Rohitha Abeygunawardena, State Minister Nalaka Godahewa, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, Central Environment Authority, the Attorney General, X-Press Feeders who are the owners of the vessel and Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt) Ltd.

Professor Pattiarachi meanwhile dismissed concerns about eating fish. ‘Chemicals get diluted and neutralized and the quantities in this case were not that big. It’s safe to eat fish’.

According to the source at the SLPA the Criminal Investigation Department has launched an investigation into the incident and the reportswill be sent to the Attorney General’s department to ascertain if there is liability.  Among others, there is provision in the Marine Pollution Prevention Act and the Criminal Procedure Code for a criminal prosecution.

The SLPA source said that an estimate of interim costs for fire fighting and clean up among others are being worked on at the moment and will be sent to the Attorney General.  International maritime experts who have been involved in litigation point out that it will take at least a few more months for the cost to be finalized as these will also include loss to business and damage to the environment.  The process will be a long and challenging one, especially if there is no agreement on costs between the government’s lawyers and those of the insurers, which in this case is London Club P&I. There will be a lot of to and fro and it could take up to four to five years if so. (SW)



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