A foreign ship carrying 600 tons of furnace oil and other steel material is on the verge of breaking up and sinking, posing a major disaster to marine life, sea-goers and the tourism industry, maritime officials and environmentalists warned last night.
The Cyprus-flagged Thmothrmopolyseara, having a tonnage of 15,500 and a cargo worth US$ 300 million, has remained at anchor for the past three years off the coast of Panadura, pending the outcome of a case currently being heard in the Colombo High Court.
|The Cyprus-flagged Thmothrmopolyseara
Earlier last month, the vessel started taking in water via three holes that appeared on the hull, and divers employed by the shipping agency, did a hurried makeshift repair job to plug the leaks, maritime officials monitoring the bulk carrier, told the Sunday Times on conditions of anonymity.
They said that, should the ship sink and hit the seabed with its load of oil, the seas from Negombo to Galle will be completely polluted, destroying marine life and bringing an end to fishing in the area, while keeping tourists off the beaches on this stretch.
“If a vessel is to be kept seaworthy, it has to enter dry dock for maintenance at least once a year. One could only imagine the condition of this vessel that has remained afloat in one place for the past three years.
The ship would have by now accumulated tons of rust, and could no longer be seaworthy, and instead, sold for scrap, while all the time, the local authorities have opted to sit on an environmental time bomb, which, when it ‘detonates’, the results would be devastating,” one official said.
A senior official of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) confirmed the serious dangers posed by this ship which was likely to sink at any moment, adding that his hands were tied owing to the ongoing court case.
“It is a time bomb, there is no doubt about that, and something will have to be done at the very earliest, before the vessel goes down to the seabed,” MEPA Director General (DG) Rear Admiral (Retd.) S.R. Samaratunga said.
He added that the vessel was in a poor condition, with the engines down, the generators malfunctioning and almost every vital component rusted beyond service or repair.“The biggest fear at present is the onset of the southwest monsoon next month, when the seas are rough and the vessel will be pounded by large waves, posing a serious threat to it. As it is, the vessel is close to sinking, and any thing could happen during the monsoon period,” DG Samaratunga added.
He said that, several representations have been made to the court, to have the ship removed or the cargo taken off, without any success, and so the drama continues.
Merchant Shipping Director General Ajith Seneviratne said he was fully aware of the grave situation, but nothing can be done without a court order.
He added six men were deployed on the vessel on Tuesday to monitor developments and report back. “Beyond that, there is very little I can do from this end,” he said.
Be that as it may, officially, environmentalists voiced serious concern on the prevailing situation surrounding the ‘Thmothrmopolyseara’, saying the ship should not be in Sri Lanka waters in the first place.
“One need not have to be an expert to realise the negative impact of such a large load of oil spilling into the ocean, and the frightening part is that the relevant authorities are helpless to stop it. “If there are impending legal issues preventing the ship from being moved out, or the cargo taken off, then the next best thing the authorities can do is to draw up contingency plans to deal with the fallout, should the vessel go down,” Marine Biologist Nishan Perera told the Sunday Times.
He added in the event of a major oil spill, the negative impact will depend on the condition of the sea and the movement of the currents at that point of time.
But, whatever the case maybe, monsoon conditions or otherwise, it will be disastrous to marine life and create havoc on the shores, with large oil deposits brought ashore by the waves, polluting the beaches and affecting tourism, he said.
His views were echoed by fellow environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene, who said that in the event of an oil spill, it could also harm sea birds which could get stuck and eventually perish. “Besides, it is bound to break up the natural coral and reef and eventually deal a severe blow to marine tourism. Furthermore, cleaning up an oil slick of such magnitude will be a gigantic task and will need millions of rupees to get it done,” Mr. Gunawardene added.
The vessel was apprehended in July 2009, after the Ukrainian crew complained to the Colombo authorities of the non-payment of wages and ill treatment by the captain, Ranjan Perera of the International Transport Workers Federation said.
He said that the ship was further detained on a court order after the ship’s owner owed millions of rupees to local bunkering firms and related maritime firms.
Lankans barred from working onboard
Seafarers have been advised against taking up employment on the vessel because it was not safe.
“That ship is a virtual floating coffin, if not a lonely jail” said National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS) president Palitha Athukorale.
He added that, local ship recruitment agents have also been told against recruiting Lankans, as their safety would be compromised. “That is a boat waiting to sink and it won’t be long before that happens,” he added.