International maritime experts have dismissed claims of a major oil spill from the MV X-Press Pearl and challenged satellite images which purportedly show one.

satellite captured images
satellite captured images

‘There has been no major oil spill so far’, said Professor of Coastal Oceanography at the University of Western Australia CharithaPattiaratchi. ‘What we are seeing is discolouredwater washing out dirt from the containers in the ship and the currents taking it away.  The wave action is creating a ‘washing’ process in the ship and going into the containers and the engine room and washing away lubricants and partly burnt oil. The small amounts of oil changes the surface tension of the water that is picked up by the satellite. But there are no large quantities of  oil in the water’.  Claims that there is an algal bloom in the water is also due to the same discolouration of the water.


Pattiaratchi draws on the analogy of the colourof water after a rusty steel bucket has been washed. ‘The water will look dirty’.


No one knows the exact volume of oil the ship was carrying although the guesstimate is that it was carrying 300 pus tons of bunker oil, most of which is reportedly still in the ship while some of it would have burnt.  


The Pearl was carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid and quantities of other chemicals including caustic soda and methanol which has led to burning questions about chemicals polluting the sea water.  Pattiaratchi explains they would have been diluted heavily to reduce the concentration.  ‘The chemicals would have been diluted more than one million times because it is a fraction of the volume in the ocean. Its’ like putting a drop of ink in a bucket. You will never be able to tell there is ink because it will get diluted’.


For now the most damage will be from the millions of plastic pellets or nurdles which are being washed ashore daily.


These pellets which are used to manufacture plastic bags have been seen making ‘waves’ and littering the coastline from Mannar in the northwest to Palatupana in the south.


Pearl Protectors, a local conservation NGO whose work involves protecting the ocean, estimates the vessel had at least three containers with bags of plastic pellets and close to three billion pellets in them. There are no confirmed reports about how many bags of pellets were collected from the ship, how are many are intact and how many were released into the ocean. Based on his computer modeling Pattiaratchipoints out only one third of the pellets have been released onto our beaches and up to 0.8 billion are currently in our waters.  Nearly 40 percent of these nurdles have left Sri Lankan waters and are heading east towards Indonesia although there is a risk of them coming back to the east coast with the onset of the north-east monsoon.


Meanwhile 26 marine animals were washed ashore early this week.  The areas included Panadura, Muturajawela, Uswatakeiyawa, Boossa, Unawatuna, Wellawatte, Moratuwa, Kepumgoda beach, Induruwa, Mt. Lavinia, Dehiwela, Payagala, Kosgoda and Kudawella. Among them were 12 turtles including a Hawksbill turtle and Olive Ridley turtle, two dolphins and a Moray eel. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has filed B reports in nine of the cases in the Mt. Lavinia, Kalutara, Panadura, Galle, Balapitiya and Moratuwa magistrates’ courts. The DWC, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency and Coast Conservation Department are the government departments which are mandated to clean the beaches.


‘The priority and urgency now is to understand why these deaths are occurring even though there could be a clear causal link between them and the ship disaster’, said MudithaKatuwawala who is with Pearl Protectors.  Normally the cause of death is established through a post- mortem which is completed between four days and two weeks after samples are taken from the dead animal.  Conservationists are concerned about the time it is taking to conduct the post- mortems because the animals which have been washed ashore are becoming heavily decomposed.  In the case of marine life, the blabber decomposes fast and speeds up the overall decomposition.


Sea turtles are a species which is protected by the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance No 2 of 1938 and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.  The Ordinance makes it an offence to snare, kill, wound, injure, be in possession or sell a turtle. It is also an offence to touch, take or destroy their eggs, and to take their meat, hide or skin.  ‘We are very lucky we have five of the seven species of turtles which are found in the world come to our beaches to nest, explains Maleesha Gunawardana, Advocacy Coordinator for Pearl Protectors.


Darshani Lahandapura, chairman of the Marine Environment Pollution said a multi- disciplinary team is calculating the damages from the ship disaster which will also include the destruction  caused to marine life.  It is unclear if there can be a separate claim for their destruction under the Ordinance and the Act. An interim claim for overall damages has already been sent to the Attorney General, according to Lahandapura


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