Nurdles Everywhere but Compensation Nowhere | Daily News

Nurdles Everywhere but Compensation Nowhere

Joint efforts to contain the fire aboard MT  New Diamond.
Joint efforts to contain the fire aboard MT New Diamond.

Lying in the middle of major sea routes, Sri Lanka sees a large number of cargo ships, some even carrying hazardous or potentially harmful substances, travelling up and down close to the island at any given time of the day.

It has been estimated that every year over 60,000 ships ply the busy East-West shipping route, which is located just six to ten nautical miles South of the island, carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of all container shipments.

This means that Sri Lanka’s sea and coastline, which support a high marine biodiversity, are vulnerable to large scale pollution from oil spills and shipwrecks. Once damaged, these sensitive ecosystems take decades to restore and often the damage is permanent.

The rich underwater world and pristine beaches of the country are also important for the economy as they are the heart of the tourism industry. Livelihoods of fishermen and those in support services, numbering about 2.7 million, depend on them as marine fish production contributes nearly 90 per cent of the total fish catch.

Even after a year of the X-Press Pearl disaster off the coast of Colombo, there has been no respite from beach clean-up activities as tiny plastic pellets, also called “nurdles”, and other debris of the burnt ship wash ashore every day.

The Singapore-flagged cargo ship, MV X-Press Pearl, caught fire near the Colombo Harbour (about 9.5 nautical miles away from the shoreline) with container loads of hazardous chemicals on board, on May 21 last year, and it is considered as the worst man-made maritime disaster to have struck Sri Lanka.

Out of the 1,486 containers in the ill-fated vessel, 81 carried 15 different types of dangerous goods, including a leaky container with 25 metric tons of nitric acid. Reportedly, 87 containers were full of plastic pellets, and at the time of the incident, the ship was carrying 348 tonnes of bunker oil, some of which leaked into the sea.

It was the second large-scale marine environment pollution incident in less than nine months, the first being the oil spill caused by the fire on the ‘MT New Diamond’, which carried more than a quarter of a million metric tonnes of crude oil. The Panamanian registered oil tanker was 38 nautical miles East of Sangamankanda Point (Eastern Province) when the fire erupted.

On September 3, 2022 two years elapsed since the disaster occurred, but surprisingly, Sri Lankan authorities are yet to file a civil lawsuit against the ship owner claiming the environmental damage. While the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) is still working on to institute legal action in coordination with the Attorney General’s Department, the senior environmentalists, however, voice concerns that Sri Lanka may be running out of time to act on that count.

On both the New Diamond and X-Press Pearl disasters, Sri Lanka spent a lot of money, time and labour to rescue the crew on board the distressed vessels, douse the fire, and mitigate the environmental impacts with the assistance of other countries and organisations. While the expenses borne by the local institutions had been partly reimbursed from time to time, Sri Lanka is yet to receive any compensation for the environmental damage caused by the above two incidents.

Extensive damage

MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura told the Daily News that more than 1,680MT of debris, washed up on Sri Lanka's shores following the X-Press Pearl disaster, had been removed so far, adding that the beach clean-up work would have to be carried out at least another year as more debris, especially the plastic pellets, continue to accumulate on the beach in considerable quantities, posing a serious challenge to the efforts of protecting the coastal belt.

“The beach clean-up work has already consumed 77,000 man-days. Now, those activities are mostly carried out by women living in the coastal areas and we make a payment to them. Those families were the most affected from the mishap, and therefore we decided to involve them in our work,” she commented.

According to the MEPA Head, deaths of over 375 turtles, seven whales and over 25 dolphins were reported as a result of the pollution caused by the charred cargo vessel, but the actual numbers could even be higher.

She said China’s Shanghai Salvage Company, which has undertaken the removal of the wreckage of the vessel, would resume its work at the end of “warakan” (high tide) by November.

She noted that the insurer of X-Press Pearl had paid Rs. 1.3 billion (US$ 3.6 million) in several tranches so far for the expenses incurred by the Government institutions in handling the maritime disaster.

In addition, the Fisheries Ministry had received about Rs 1.6 billion (US$ 4.4 million) in three parts as compensation to fishermen since there was a fishing ban in the affected sea area for several days. This includes Rs. 911 million (US$ 2.5 million) received late last month. The Fisheries Ministry, in a press statement on August 28, said the money would be distributed among 15,032 affected fishermen, and that each of them would receive compensation between Rs. 80,000 and Rs. 240,000.

Beach clean-up in the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl disaster.

However, compared to the interim damage claim of US$ 40 million sought by Sri Lankan authorities in June 2021, the total claim received so far stands very low. Sri Lanka is yet to submit its environmental damage claims, and Australian law firm ‘Sparke Helmore Lawyers’ is providing legal guidance to Sri Lanka on that aspect.

“The first interim report on the environmental damage has been forwarded to the Australian legal experts. Previously, we intended to file a lawsuit towards the end of this year, but Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe instructed us to speed up the process and institute legal action within six weeks. Therefore, we are working towards that target now,” she added.

Questions unanswered

Two senior environmentalists, to whom the Daily News spoke to, however, expressed their dismay over the manner the responsible local agencies handled the affairs related to the X-Press Pearl disaster.

Attorney-at-Law, Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekara, a reputed ocean and maritime law expert, said what Sri Lanka has received up to this point is a pittance compared to the unbridled damage the accident caused. To his assessment, Sri Lanka could claim US$ 5-8 billion for the damage suffered by our marine environment. Speaking out his dissatisfaction, he stressed that the MEPA and the AG’s Department could have done better and that there was much more to do even within the existing legal framework.

Hundreds of sea turtles washed up dead on the beaches after the X-Press Pearl disaster.

“As a country we should be ashamed of our inaction on this grave matter. The lacklustre attitude of our authorities may raise doubts of bribery and corruption. Other countries which faced similar pollution incidents have taken vigorous actions to obtain high compensation. I personally volunteered to provide free consultancy on behalf of the country on this matter as it is my area of expertise, but no assistance was requested,” he noted.

He also questioned the need to involve an Australian law firm when the AG’s Department could handle the matter.

Environmental Scientist and Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Director Hemantha Withanage said the laboratory tests conducted on samples of plastic pellets collected from the beach showed a high concentration of harmful chemical compounds such as Bisphenol and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. The tests were conducted in Prague, Czech Republic with the intervention of the CEJ together with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).

“Both these chemical compounds remain in the environment for a long time, resulting in bioaccumulation. The scope of our tests was limited due to financial constraints, but there can be more such toxic chemical compounds in the debris. People are not aware and also less concerned about the health and environmental risks posed by them,” he remarked.

Withanage was of the opinion that Sri Lanka could claim as much as US$ 10 billion for the damage. “The MEPA and the AG’s Department are bidding for more time to file a lawsuit, and we may ultimately lose the opportunity to do so,” he alleged, also calling for a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the matter.

He said they have filed two petitions in the Appeal Court and another petition in the Supreme Court over the X-Press Pearl disaster.

The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) when it summoned the MEPA in March this year questioned why the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF), a not-for-profit organisation that represented the ship owners/insurers, was selected to assist the MEPA too. Prof. Charitha Herath, who was the then COPE Chairman, reportedly pointed out that the organisation concerned would have been able to manipulate the whole process to the advantage of the ship owners.

Speaking along the same line, Withanage complained that the ITOPF’s involvement in this affair could be to cover up the damage incurred by Sri Lanka.

Civil lawsuits

Observing that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) Convention, developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 2010, he underlined that adopting this Convention would be useful to the country to manage similar situations in the future. This Convention is intended to provide liability and compensation for ship-source spills of HNS, based on the polluter pays principle.

MV X-Press Pearl in flames.

“More than a year has passed and we are yet to initiate legal action. Moving in this sluggish way, we will not be able to complete the process of suing the Company within a two-year period as required by law. It has already happened with regard to the oil spill caused by MT New Diamond, and it is likely that we may not be able to obtain any compensation for it,” he pointed out.

The New Diamond vessel left Sri Lankan waters in October 2020 after paying Rs. 442 million for the expenses incurred by the Government stakeholders for putting out the fire. This amount does not cover the environmental damage caused by the ship.

In that same month, the Captain of the ill-fated crude oil tanker was fined Rs. 12 million by the Colombo High Court following a criminal case filed under the MEPA Act. It was stated that the negligence of its skipper and over-heating of equipment due to the excessive speed of the ship resulted in the accident. The Captain was fined after he pleaded guilty for the two charges pressed against him.

Attorney General Dappula de Livera, before his retirement mid last year, forwarded a claim of Rs 3.4 billion to the owner of MT New Diamond over marine pollution, but no money has been received until now. His claim was based on a report submitted by an 18-Member Expert Panel which assessed the environmental damage of the accident. Drawing attention to this matter, the COPE instructed the MEPA to expedite the recovery of Rs. 3.4 billion from MT New Diamond through legal means.

MEPA Chairperson Lahandapura, when asked by the Daily News, admitted that there is a problem with the timeframe of filing a civil lawsuit against the owner of New Diamond, but said that she would comment on it later as discussions were on to find a way around the problem.

At a time the country is struggling hard to find foreign exchange even to import essential items, high amounts of compensations due from these shipping firms can help shore up our feeble economy. Yet, those hang in the balance due to inordinate delays in the process, for which reasons are sometimes puzzling.


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