A multi-dimensional catastrophe | Daily News
X-Press Pearl:

A multi-dimensional catastrophe

The X-Press  Pearl on fire.
The X-Press Pearl on fire.

It is a few minutes past seven in the morning. T.A. Chandana, 38, sits on an abandoned fishing boat and watches salvors and the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) together with the Indian Coastguard (ICG) trying to save what is left of a large container ship and avoid an oil spill.  

The sinking MV X-Press Pearl, a container ship registered in Singapore, poses a huge threat to the country, especially to marine life. In case of an oil spill, experts warn, the outcome can be devastating. This is predicted to have a domino effect on everything else for decades to come.

This is the second time within a year that a ship has burned in the vicinity of Sri Lanka – the first being the MT New Diamond, a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) in September 2020. On this occasion, a small oil slick occurred but the incident was managed without any long-term impact.

A few metres from the Dikowita Fisheries Harbour, where Chandana sits on the boat, the beach is swamped with microplastic pellets washed ashore from the ship which was engulfed in a blaze for days on end.

“I come here every morning and watch the ship burn. Look at these plastics. I have never seen anything like this before,” Chandana said as he stamped on a few pellets with his toes.

It is a sorry sight. Plastic bottles and wraps littered the beach, and the pellets only seemed to aggravate the pollution.

The X-Press Pearl on launch day three months ago.

SLN officers worked tirelessly day and night to clean the beaches which were once pristine and attracted tourists in their thousands pre-pandemic. Under a scorching sun clad in hazmat suits, they collected the pallets and other ship debris into bags before transporting them elsewhere to be disposed of under internationally accepted norms.

The three-month-old MV X-Press Pearl reported a leak in one of its 1,486 containers on May 20. Soon a fire broke out on board and the cyclonic conditions that wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean at this time aggravated the fire on May 24.

An explosion on board further complicated matters, setting off a bigger conflagration. Nothing that was done later helped the situation until the rear part of the vessel sank on June 2 while it was being towed to the deep sea by a tugboat from the Dutch firm SMIT. The forward part is still floating at the time of writing.

Among the ill-fated ship’s cargo were 25 tonnes of Nitric Acid, reportedly 50 tonnes of Sodium Methoxide solution, another 50 tonnes of Sodium Methoxide, 850 tonnes of solid Caustic Soda, and other dangerous cargo along with cosmetics and some confectionaries. There were about 300 metric tonnes of fuel in the vessel too, for its own use (propulsion).

Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Chairperson Attorney-at-Law Dharshani Lahandapura said they have reason to believe that most of the cargo including the fuel was consumed by the fire.

Colombo Harbour Master Captain Nirmal Silva said at a media briefing that under the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP), the MEPA and other agencies are on standby in case of an oil spill. The ICG too will maintain a presence.

An ongoing investigation

An extensive investigation into the incident is underway, with local and foreign expertise. On June 4, the SLN said it was facilitating a team of State officials who were conducting the investigation into the fire-stricken vessel. In addition to probing  how and why the fire originated, the Sri Lankan Government is keen to know whether any local officials knowingly let the ship into the Colombo Port, despite the dangers posed.

“In response to a request made by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) from the SLN to transfer an investigation team to the aforesaid location, in order to obtain seawater samples, conduct on-site monitoring and investigate the impact on the marine environment due to the ship’s fire, the Navy was involved in the facilitation,” it stated in a press release.

“Incidentally, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard Ship Samudraraksha transferred a 14-member investigation team which included officials from the Government Analyst’s Department to the location, for their ongoing investigations,” it added.

Meanwhile, insurers and owners of the vessel have agreed to make an interim payment for the cost incurred since the ship caught fire. As for the ship’s cargo, Rob Hawes, head of marine at US-based claims management firm Crawford & Co., estimates the cargo loss from the fire aboard the X-Press Pearl containership to be between US$ 30 million and US$ 50 million, with insurers facing hull and machinery, liability and cargo insurance claims, S&P Global reported. The London P&I Club provided the protection and indemnity cover for the X-Press Pearl, which caught fire on May 21 near the Colombo Port.

Twin disaster for fishing community

Fear-stricken consumers have limited the consumption of fish after most of the chemical-based cargo spilled into the sea and started to wash ashore.

“I haven’t bought fish in weeks. How do we know that the fish is safe?” S. Priyangika who lives with her husband in Boralesgamuwa asked. Her plan is to not buy fish for some time till they are assured that the local fish is safe for consumption. Until then, she will only buy canned fish.

The location of the ship mishap

Y.A. Azeez, 42, does not believe that the fish are affected. He is a fish seller at the Peliyagoda fish market. A father of four, Azeez has to sell his fish to feed his family.

“This is a really bad time for us. People are not buying fish because they are afraid it is poisoned,” he said. His business has dropped by more than 60 percent.

The mobile fish sellers, especially those on push bicycles and motorcycles, have cut their purchases at least by half of what they previously bought from wholesalers like Azeez. “We have even reduced the prices,” he said. When asked if he sees an end to their issue, he said “God only knows.”

This is the second time consumers shied away from buying fish. Last year a Covid-19 outbreak in the Peliyagoda fish market caused panic among consumers. It also reminds consumers of the time they avoided fish after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

This time, the Government has imposed a fishing ban in and around the area where the ship’s waste is known to have affected marine life. But there are fears that more fishermen from Negombo to Galle could be affected, as the debris had washed away as far as that Southern coastal town.

Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda said they have identified around 12,000 people affected by the ban to varying degrees and 3,993 others who are indirectly dependent on fishing. He said an allowance of Rs. 5,000 is given to those affected, in line with the Government’s granting of the Rs. 5,000 allowance to those who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Fragile marine life at risk

The ‘man-made’ marine disaster is predicted to have devastating effects on marine life. Marine ecologist Dr. Kamal Ranatunga said in case of an oil spill, the effects will be long term and the country will take a long time to recover.

He said the area where the ship sank was an ecologically sensitive area. An oil spill of any size will have a direct impact on marine and bird species that inhabit coastal areas.

“Maximum efforts should be made in such a situation,” he said.

Microplastics are another issue the marine ecologist is worried about. “An oil spill together with microplastics will have a greater adverse impact in the long term,” he warned.

Microplastics by absorbing the toxins in oil and other HNS (Hazardous and Noxious Substances) in the cargo could poison fish if they consume them after mistaking them for food.

An apology

Shmuel Yoskovitz, CEO of X-Press Feeders, the Singapore-based container shipping group that owns the fire-stricken MV X-Press Pearl, apologized for the incident.

“I would like to express my deep regret and apologies to the Sri Lankan people for the harm this incident has caused to their livelihood and to the environment of Sri Lanka,” he said.

He said the salvors were monitoring the wreck to ensure that debris and any possible oil spill will be detected and handled accordingly.

“To assess the real situation, we will need to wait for the wreck to settle on the seabed and then see what really can be done,” he said.