The local agents of the doomed MV X-Press Pearl this week refused to comment on Government claims that vital information about a nitric acid leak from an on-board container had been withheld from Sri Lankan authorities for at least ten hours after the vessel reached anchorage outside the Colombo Port. A senior official from Sea [...]


Sri Lanka sinking deeper into murky waters over burning ship


Negombo beach: One of the many personnel involved in a massive clean up of debris. Pic by Akila Jayawardana

The local agents of the doomed MV X-Press Pearl this week refused to comment on Government claims that vital information about a nitric acid leak from an on-board container had been withheld from Sri Lankan authorities for at least ten hours after the vessel reached anchorage outside the Colombo Port.

A senior official from Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt) Ltd said all matters related to the disaster will be handled by a team of lawyers based in Sri Lanka and Singapore. On Friday, State Minister of Coast Conservation Nalaka Godahewa said the vessel had called at two ports–in Qatar and India–before heading towards Colombo for a scheduled stop.

Late notification

It was found out much later by Sri Lankan authorities that the ship had requested at each destination to shift a container of nitric acid as it was leaking. Both turned it down citing inadequate facilities. X-Press Pearl reached Sri Lankan waters around midnight on May 19. But it did not inform the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) or the Colombo Port control room of the leak, Dr Godahewa said.

The first indication came via email at around 10a.m.–ten hours later–requesting permission to rearrange this container when they berth at Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) around midnight on May 20. There was no indication of an emergency.

And it was at 12 noon that day (official data shows it was at 12.40p.m.), more than twelve hours later, that the crew notified the SLPA of a fire before saying it had been successfully managed onboard. At 2p.m., the vessel asked for help.

Despite this omission, Minister Godahewa was evasive when asked why immediate action had not been taken against the local agents or any other party. He said there must be an investigation first and that it could not be done when “even the fire wasn’t out yet”.

Harbour Master K. M. Nirmal P. Silva, meanwhile, pointed out that the vessel had declared the presence of dangerous cargo but not the leak. He also said it could not be determined whether the fire was triggered by the leak or some other factor. The ship had gone to the two other ports with the same condition and not faced a problem, he added. It was not immediately clear why he attempted to distance the leak from the disaster that followed.

MV X-Press Pearl was a Singapore-flagged container cargo  ship and only three months old. It has 322 tons of bunker fuel in tanks and the worst environmental damage will occur if what’s left of the ship breaks apart or it sinks, emptying the oil into the sea. Authorities have said they are on alert for this.

Debris spreads far and wide

The ship contained 1,486 containers with 25 tons of nitric acid, caustic soda solid, sodium methoxide solution, cosmetics, methanol and vinyl acetate, etc. It had 25 crew members on board. Official reports state they had released its carbon dioxide flooding system to extinguish the fire but it was not successful.

By yesterday, debris from the burning vessel along with contents of containers washed up along the coastline from Marawila (Puttalam district) to Maggona (Kalutara district) said A Navaratnerajah, Chairman of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). This means remains were scattered on the beaches of four districts in two provinces.

The doomed MV X-Press Pearl: Was vital info withheld?

Oceanswell, a marine conservation research and education organization founded by marine biologist Asha de Vos, published a dispersion model prepared by Charitha Pattiaratchi and Sarath Wijeratne, oceanographers at the University of Western Australia to see where debris and oil will travel between May 25 and 27.

“In a nutshell, the currents are shifting southward and we can expect to see more accumulation of debris towards Colombo and the South,” it said. “Oil will likely get washed up north of Colombo.”

Meanwhile, dead marine animals, including turtles, have started appearing. They are likely to have succumbed to exposure to toxic chemicals from the ship.

The coastline from Dickowita to Kochchikade is severely polluted by debris, Dharshani Lahandapura, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Chairperson, told the Sunday Times. Cleanup was already going on in 21 beaches.

There was serious concern about the impact on marine life, Prof. Navaratnerajah said: “We continue to collect samples but it will take time to determine the full extent of damage to beaches and marine life or how long it will take for things to return to normal.”

The toxic chemicals and cosmetics could have a severe negative effect on the marine food chain, said Deeptha Amarathunga, Senior Scientist at NARA leading the expert team studying the environmental impact.

Chemicals mixed with seawater will cause reactions that could alter the pH level of the seawater in the immediate vicinity, Dr Amarathunga said. “While larger fish might be able to escape, smaller fish and organisms such as phytoplankton, which provide food for a wide range of smaller sea creatures, will die,” he warned. “This, in turn, will negatively impact the marine food chain needed to sustain a balanced ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, the micro-plastics seen in the form of tiny pebbles among the debris, too, will harm marine life “We will not be able to remove all of them and they will be in the environment for a very long time,” he noted.

“We have collected water and sediment samples up to Lunawa as of Saturday and will continue to collect samples for testing from other areas where we hear debris has washed ashore,” he said. “We will also routinely collect samples from affected areas over a month or so and test them continuously to gauge the impact.” Since fishing in affected areas is prohibited, Dr Amarathunga said, the public need not fear eating fish.

Much of the blaze was doused by Friday but the fire escalated on a part of the ship again that night. It could have been to one of its fuel tanks igniting, said Ms Lahandapura. It is not certain how much oil was burned up and how much is left. To assess this, the fire must be completely out and the ship cooled.

Fishermen hit

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa led some ministers and senior officials to Uswetakeiyawa in Wattala for an inspection. On his instructions, the Government yesterday announced that the Rs 5,000 allowance granted to those who lost livelihoods owing to movement restrictions will be extended to fishermen affected by the latest disaster.

All day-fishing activities from Panadura to Negombo were banned over fears that fish in these regions were contaminated by chemicals or plastic pellets from the ship. Fishing in the Negombo lagoon is also suspended.

The disaster occurred around 9.5 nautical miles (17.5 km) off the Colombo Port. At a press conference, the Government rejected reports it had allowed the ship into Sri Lankan waters despite knowing of a risk.

Firefighting efforts were hampered by adverse weather. The harbour master said it was the worst weather he had seen during his 17 years on the job. The crew were evacuated and quarantined. Two were admitted to hospital for injuries while another tested positive for COVID-19.

Several explosions onboard reignited fires that were doused, while some containers fell into the sea and sank. The containers predominantly contained chemicals, making it more difficult to control the flames.

There was no ban on multi-day fishing trawlers operating in deep seas. Fishermen in parts of the country were also encouraged to continue their work.

Meanwhile, the public are urged not to fear eating fish. “There is a misconception that it is unsafe to eat fish but those sold recently and currently on sale were caught prior to the incident,” said Kanchana Wijesekera, State Fisheries Minister. “We have already suspended all fishing activities along the affected stretch of coast. The restrictions will remain until agencies like MEPA and the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) tell us it’s safe to recommence.”

Minister Wijesekera said the fishing ban will hit a large number of fishermen who carry out day-fishing in the Negombo lagoon and Gampaha and Colombo districts. About 5,600 day-fishing vessels are affected.

The Fisheries Department has identified some 28 professions directly connected to the fisheries sector in these areas. They include producers and sellers of dried fish, transporters and fish vendors. The Minister said the Government hopes to provide financial relief in lieu of lost wages. It has been discussed with the District Secretaries of Colombo and Gampaha as well. Details of affected persons are being collected.

Fishermen in the Wattala, Pamunugama, area didn’t go out to sea for nearly two weeks–first owing to inclement weather and then the ship disaster, said Lal Nissanka, President of the United Rural Fishermens’ Society.

“All of us are engaged in day-fishing activities,” he pointed out. “This is the best season for prawns, but we have not been able to reap that harvest. There are over 1,400 fishermen in our society who have not been able to go out to sea. This has had a devastating financial impact on us.”

Investigations and claims

MEPA’s Deputy Director-General Jagath Gunasekara lodged a complaint with the Colombo Harbour Police on May 23 in respect of the marine pollution, Police Spokesman Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police Ajith Rohana said.

The harbour police have started investigations and reported facts to the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. On judicial orders, samples taken from the sea and debris were sent to the Government Analyst.

Ship workers including the captain are still under quarantine therefore police were unable to record statements. However, police will contact the local agent and further action will be taken, DIG Rohana said.

Investigations are continuing also to arrest those who collected debris from the vessel on the Negombo beach while ignoring warnings from authorities that they could contain dangerous chemicals. Eight suspects have been taken in while a lorry allegedly used to transport these goods was also confiscated.

Separately, MEPA will lodge an interim claim with the X-Press Pearl’s owners for compensation for damage caused to the marine environment, Ms Lahandapura said. This is because it could take months to accurately calculate the full extent of losses as it was a complicated process.

A similar process was followed when the container vessel MT Blue Diamond caught fire off the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka in September last year. Various Government agencies incurred Rs 442 million in cost while investigations proved the actions of the ship’s captain had also contributed towards the incident. Legal action was instituted against him in the Colombo Magistrate’s Court leading to a guilty plea and a fine of Rs 12mn. The vessel was allowed to leave once the total payment was deposited with the Finance Ministry.

But it took around four months to assess the damage caused by an oil slick from the ship, Ms Lahandapura said. It was only a few weeks ago that the Attorney General forwarded MEPA’s assessment to the local insurer of the shipping company. “The insurer has informed us that they need time to study our report and we are hopeful of a positive response from them,” she reported.

The cleanup

More than 1000 persons, mainly military, were toiling since Wednesday to clean up debris. Booms were laid at the entrance to the Negombo lagoon to protect marine life in case of an oil spill, MEPA General Manager Terney Pradeep Kumara told the Sunday Times.

The biggest concern continues to be the possibility of hundreds of tons of thick bunker oil leaking into the sea. That would compound an already bad disaster. There is currently no danger of the ship breaking and releasing the fuel, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne told media on Friday.

The Dutch salvage company hired by the shipowners had sent a 12-person team of firefighting experts to Sri Lanka to assist in the operation. “Their equipment arrived the following day,” the Commander said. “Unfortunately, the weather on both days was severe with wind speeds reaching from 45 to 60 knots at times. This resulted in the fire spreading quickly throughout the vessel.”

The fire has now been controlled considerably with only the aft portion of the vessel still in flames. There is still smoke coming from other parts of the vessel and flames are sporadically visible as wind speed picks up. The Navy was working together with the salvors to put these out.

Sri Lankan authorities requested Indian assistance on May 25 as Indian Coast Guard (ICG) vessels are equipped to prevent any oil spill from spreading, the Vice Admiral stressed. “While there is no danger at present of the ship breaking up, we can’t say whether how much of the oil on board the vessel has been exhausted and how much still remains,” he said.

The Indian High Commission noted in a media release on Friday that ICG Ships Vajira, Vaibhav and a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft were currently part of the joint operation. Samudra Prahari, a specialized pollution response vessel, arrived in the area yesterday to augment pollution control efforts.

The operation’s focus has been on preventing the spread of fire towards the vessel’s bow, thereby protecting anchor, cable chain and associated machinery in highly inclement weather, the release added. There was heavy smoke only near the accommodation/superstructure area in aft portion of the ship. This was being tackled.

“Overall, the MV X-Press Pearl is currently assessed as being stable and not having issues with watertight integrity,” the release said.

Sri Lanka Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said naval vessels along with tugs from the SLPA and specialised tugs hired by the nominated salvor initially fought the fire. An explosion onboard, however, worsened the fire while strong winds further fanned the flames. Indian assistance was therefore sought as the next phase of the contingency plan with authorities is preparing for a possible oil spill.

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