X-Press Pearl causes sea of trouble

The unimaginable scale of the coastal and marine pollution caused by the distressed Singapore-flagged cargo box ship, MV X-Press Pearl, which was engulfed in fire near the Colombo Port with container loads of hazardous chemicals on board, added a new challenge for the Government, on top of the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout.

The Government had to act fast using all hands available to rescue crew members, extinguish the flames, prevent an oil spill and stop the vessel from sinking following an explosion on May 25. Two injured seafarers were taken to local hospitals for treatment. The Navy and the Air Force did a commendable job in all those operations with the swift assistance from India and later from the Netherlands, which sent a team of experts at short notice.  

The 186-metre vessel had 278 tonnes of bunker oil, 50 tonnes of marine gas oil and 1,486 container loads of toxic chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics and various other industries, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid. The tireless efforts of the firefighters, amidst rough seas and bad weather that prevailed, averted a shipwreck and thus controlled the environmental disaster to a considerable extent. There is also apparently no danger of the ship sinking or leaking its own fuel stocks.

However, little could be done to save the coastline from debris that washed ashore from the burnt ship, which was afloat just 9.5 Nautical Miles (17.6 km) away from the Colombo Port. At the same time, the sea waves hitting the beach had turned black due to contamination of harmful chemicals and other raw materials from the vessel.      

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa inspecting a section of the affected coastal area

The Western and Southern beaches were covered with plastic pellets, which were among the cargo, and other debris washed ashore. Truck-loads of plastic pellets were removed using bulldozers to scoop them up with sand. The Navy and the Army troops as well as the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) and other stakeholders worked shoulder to shoulder in Hazmat suits to clean up the coastal belt while turning back the people, who were incautiously collecting the debris despite the repeated warnings of their hazardous nature and despite the prevailing movement control orders.

The environmentalists mourn that the ecological impact of this accident would be felt for several generations to come.  

In-depth probe

This unexpected incident has been too much to bear for the marine environment of the country, which had already been severely disturbed by micro-plastics and overfishing. Deemed as the worst ecological disaster of the country, this incident, in its aftermath, triggered a string of questions worthy of investigation. This is the second such disaster to unfold in our waters in recent times, the fire on board the MT New Diamond being the first.

Immediate concerns raised by environmentalists and political representatives included as to who permitted the vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters, whether Sri Lankan authorities were aware of the harmful chemicals on board the vessel, whether the Port authorities were alerted about the nitric acid leak in the vessel, whether Sri Lanka lacked expertise to handle the situation and whether Sri Lanka’s legal framework is strong enough to deal with an incident of this magnitude.

On the other hand, concerns have also been raised on the lapses on the part of the Singapore-based company X-Press Feeders which handled the ship and its cargo. Some experts on the subject were of the view that it amounts to a breach of international guidelines and understandings relevant to the shipping industry if the relevant company had concealed the true state of the vessel from the authorities in the Colombo Port.     

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has appointed a 10-member team of senior detectives to delve deeper into the incidents and claims surrounding the container ship operated by X-Press Feeders. The CID on Monday recorded statements from the Captain, Chief Engineer and the Second Chief Engineer of the ill-fated ship, who were earlier brought ashore and were in quarantine.

Fisher-folk impacted

The matters involving the cargo ship naturally attracted a lot of political attention given their adverse environmental and social impact. The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen were interrupted as fishing activities were temporarily halted following the incident. Well-aware of the sensitivity of the issue, the Government promptly decided to pay an interim allowance of Rs. 5,000 to the fishermen affected in the area.

It will be paid parallel to the Government’s programme to distribute Rs. 5,000 allowance for the needy families affected by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was taken on Saturday after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made an inspection tour of the affected coastal area at Uswetakeiyawa, a fishing village in Wattala, where he discussed with public representatives and authorities on what immediate steps could be taken to mitigate the negative impacts of the incident.

Urban Development, Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal and Community Cleanliness State Minister Dr. Nalaka Godahewa told the media on Monday that the owners of the Singapore-registered cargo carrier would be sued after gathering necessary information.    

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, issuing a press statement on Friday, called for a transparent inquiry on granting permission to the cargo vessel, in which a nitric acid leak had been detected, to come to the Colombo Port. The Catholic priests in the area, issuing a press statement on the advice of Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, also urged the Government to compensate the fishing community affected by this incident. 

As mentioned, this was the second large-scale marine pollution event reported in less than a year in Sri Lankan waters. A major oil spill occurred when the loaded crude oil tanker MT New Diamond caught fire in September last year in the seas off the East coast of Sri Lanka. The owners of the vessel paid Rs. 442 million to Sri Lanka in October last year for the expenses incurred by the Government stakeholders in dousing the fire. Former Attorney General Dappula de Livera, who retired last week, forwarded a claim of Rs 3.4 billion in April this year to the lawyers representing the New Diamond over marine pollution. 

Beach clean-up in progress

Meanwhile, 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 has provided the protection and indemnity cover for X-Press Pearl, which caught fire on May 21 near the Sri Lankan port of Colombo.

Unbecoming conduct

On a different matter entirely, the COVID-19 vaccination programme, which was making headway despite the many snags on its way, was marred by unwanted interferences of politicians and influential people over the last couple of weeks.

The most noted of all such unpleasant incidents was the high-handed behaviour of Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando, where he literally attempted to hijack the vaccination programme in Moratumulla demanding priority for the residents who had chits issued by him.

Undue political influence has become a common occurrence in the personal affairs of the people, may it be a job interview, admission to a school or receiving handouts, but meddling with the inoculation drive was something new and raised many eyebrows.

The Mayor’s unruly attempt was thwarted by the Moratuwa Medical Officer of Health (MOH), who stuck to her guns that political favouritism was not possible when administering vaccines. A heated exchange of words ensued between the two, and the ugly scenes, which first went viral on social media and later on national television, resulted in a public outcry. The video shows that the lady doctor was putting up a brave fight not to cave in to the pressure.  

Following a Police complaint from the MoH, Mayor Fernando, who surrendered to the Police, was arrested and remanded till June 11 for obstructing the duties of Government officials and violating quarantine rules and regulations.

The political pot boiled over this incident, and the misconduct on the part of the Mayor was openly condemned by a seemingly irate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a roundtable discussion on controlling COVID-19.  The President pointed out that the ugly incidents like those should be dealt with strongly as those undermine the entire COVID-19 inoculation drive. Several Government Ministers who were present at this discussion expressed regret over this incident and assured the President that such incidents would not happen again.  DN

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