MEPA rebuffs vessel reps’ allegation that Lankan authorities were too slow to tackle the disaster Distribution of third round of compensation completed, but questions over rupee payment instead of dollars By Sandun Jayawardana  Delays by the port authorities in taking action during the five-day window between the start of the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl [...]


X-Press Pearl disaster: Blame-game rages over delay in rapid response


  • MEPA rebuffs vessel reps’ allegation that Lankan authorities were too slow to tackle the disaster
  • Distribution of third round of compensation completed, but questions over rupee payment instead of dollars

By Sandun Jayawardana 

Delays by the port authorities in taking action during the five-day window between the start of the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl ship and the time the crew abandoned it continue to be a matter of debate as the blame-game rages as to who was really to blame for the disaster.

The fire onboard the vessel was first reported on May 20 last year and the remaining crew members abandoned the ship on May 25 as the fire raged out of control in the seas off Colombo. 

In the aftermath of the massive disaster, those representing the vessel’s interests have accused the Sri Lankan authorities, particularly the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), of being too slow to react to tackle the unfolding disaster. They claim the magnitude of the disaster could have been mitigated had the Sri Lankan authorities acted speedily. “What was the drill they had” for such fire accidents, and they ask; “if there was one, why was it not implemented”.

Even now, questions are being raised as to why MEPA did not instruct the Sri Lanka Navy and the SLPA to move the stricken vessel to international waters or to another location further down the western coast so that it could have been relatively shielded from monsoonal currents once the fire started raging on board.

MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura, however, claims that the ship’s owners and local agent underestimated the scale of the fire. She said MEPA had initially instructed the ship’s owners to move the vessel at least 50 nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast.

However, even experts from the Dutch salvage company employed by the ship’s owners initially reported the fire to be under control after boarding the vessel on November 23, she told the Sunday Times. The fire escalated again in the early hours of May 25, forcing everyone to abandon the vessel, she said.

Ms Lahandapura also claimed the post-mortem reports of marine mammals, whose carcasses had washed up in the weeks following the disaster, had been completed and would be produced in court.

Meanwhile, the distribution of the third round of compensation for fishermen affected by the X-Press Pearl disaster is now almost complete, according to fisheries officials.

The authorities received Rs. 911 million from the vessel’s insurers as the third round of compensation. The Fisheries Ministry accepted the third interim payment “under objections” as unlike the previous two payments, it was made as a rupee payment, said Dhammika Ranatunga, Director General (Technical) of the Fisheries Ministry. 

Sri Lanka received USD 1 million as the first interim claim for the fisheries sector while USD 1.75 million was received as the second interim claim.

Compensation has been distributed across three affected districts of Gampaha (from Negombo to Wattala), Colombo (up to Moratuwa) and Kalutara including a small area in Panadura. Officials have identified 15,032 fishermen who are eligible for compensation, along with 4,888 people connected to fishing activities.

The fishermen have been grouped into 23 categories while there are 24 categories among those who are engaged in jobs related to the fishing sector.

Mr. Ranatunga said three interim payments were made to 297 Grama Niladhari divisions through 18 Divisional Secretariats. The money was deposited into bank accounts.

Fishermen’s unions, however, complain that the distribution of compensation has been plagued by problems.

Many of those who were heavily impacted by the disaster were those engaged in small-scale fisheries, said Herman Kumar, Convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement. “They could not go out to sea for 45 days owing to the no-fishing zone that was imposed by the authorities after the disaster. Yet, not all of them have been fully compensated,” he claimed.

More than 10,000 fishermen are registered with the Negombo office of the Department of Fisheries office. There are also many fishermen engaged in lagoon fishing.

Fisher unions demand justice, says compensation programme is plagued by problems. Pic by Akila Jayawardena

Meanwhile, though the authorities say only fishermen from the three districts of the Western Province were affected, the disaster also impacted fishermen from Kalpitiya in the northwest coast to Matara in the southwest coast because people refrained from eating fish for long periods once nurdles from the vessel started washing up on the coast and visuals emerged of dead fish with nurdles inside them, Mr Kumara explained.

He said fishermen also felt that far more compensation could be obtained for the losses suffered by the fisheries sector due to the disaster but the government had been slow to act in this regard.

Ship captain, local agency directors indicted;

travel ban imposed

By Ranjith Padmasiri

Eighteen months after the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, the Attorney General on Friday indicted eight accused over the environmental pollution caused by the fire and subsequent sinking of the stricken container vessel X-Press Pearl.

Five accused were present in court when the indictments were served at the Colombo High Court before Judge Damith Thotawatta.

Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd., the company which acted as the ship’s local agent, has been named as the second accused in the case. Those who were present in court when indictments were served were the vessel’s Russian Captain Vitaly Tyutkalo (first accused) and Sea Consortium Lanka directors Arjuna Hettiarachchi, Aminda Hettiarachchi, Panduka Weerasekara, and Sanjeewa Lakpriya Samaranayake.

They were released on two personal bails of Rs. 1 million each. The court also imposed an overseas travel ban on them.

The judge ordered the accused to strictly adhere to their bail conditions and report to the CID on the last Sunday of every month. He also ordered that the passports of the accused be confiscated and said they should obtain the court’s permission if they wished to travel abroad.

The court, however, granted a request made on behalf of the third accused, Arjuna Hettiarachchi through his attorney Anura Meddegoda PC, to travel overseas from December 3 to 11 for medical treatment.

Nipuna Wimalasekara PC, who appeared for X-Press’s Pearl’s Captain Vitaly Tyutkalo said his client was not a citizen of Sri Lanka, but had been forced to remain in the country for more than a year now and urged the court to take this into consideration.

Sarath Jayamanne PC informed court that he represents Sea Consortium Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd.

Asoka Weerasooriya, who appeared for the eighth accused, Sanjeewa Lakpriya Samaranayake, noted that his client’s laptop, which had been confiscated by the CID, had been damaged and queried about the progress into the complaint made in this regard. Deputy Solicitor General Madhawa Thennakoon said an inquiry had been launched into the incident on the instructions of the Inspector General of Police and said he would brief the court about its progress at a later date.

The indictments were filed under the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008. The AG’s Department said that 45 types of waste had been identified as having leaked into the environment from the vessel and have attached a list of these items to the case file.

The prosecution said it intends to produce 28 court products during the course of the trial. Additionally, 65 witnesses are to take the stand.

The prosecution told the court it intends to produce computer data and digital discs at the trial. The defence requested copies of such data and discs.

The case will be called again on December 12.

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