Acid leak informed only on arrival: Sri Lanka Ports Authority


  • Ship didn’t mention leak when leaving to SL

  • SL assisted after Qatar, India refused

  • Fire aboard wanes


By Pamodi Waravita


The presently engulfed-in-flames MV X-Press Pearl ship had not informed the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) of a leaking nitric acid container aboard the vessel when departing from India and had only notified of the said leak upon arrival within a short distance of the Colombo Harbour, according to SLPA officials.

Speaking to The Morning yesterday (27) SLPA officials, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the leak had not been notified prior to the departure of the ship from a western Indian port to Sri Lanka, and therefore, Sri Lanka had responded positively to the vessel’s request for assistance.

However, the SLPA officials told The Morning that even though they were only informed about the said acid leak – which is not considered a matter of distress in maritime matters if it is containable – once the ship had entered Colombo waters, they were preparing to assist it, which was when the fire had broken out aboard the vessel.

“When the ship came to Sri Lankan waters in the early hours of 20 May and anchored about 9.5 nautical miles away from the Colombo Harbour, it informed the Port of the acid leakage in one of its containers and the Port was preparing to assist in a rework operation, which was when the distress call came from aboard the ship about a fire,” an official said.

The officials also told The Morning that the ship had docked at both the Hamad Port in Qatar and the Hazira Port in India, engaging in both its official loading and unloading activities. However, they could not comment on why the two ports had refused to help the ship with the acid leakage, although they said that information shows that the leak had started in Qatar.

The Singapore-based X-Press Feeders, which operates the ship, issued a statement yesterday confirming this, clarifying that the ship had not been denied entry to ports in India and Qatar.

“Please note, reports that the vessel was denied entry into Hazira Port in India and Hamad Port in Qatar are incorrect. The ship underwent discharge and loading operations in both ports before continuing on its planned journey to Colombo. Applications had been made to both ports to offload a container that was leaking nitric acid, but the advice given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid,” the statement read.

Speaking to The Morning, SLPA Chairman Gen. (Retd.) Daya Ratnayake also confirmed that the Colombo Port had not been initially informed of the acid leak. The SLPA Chairman added that the cause of the fire would have to be confirmed after an official investigation.

The Singaporean flag-bearing MV X-Press Pearl ship has been burning outside Colombo Harbour since 20 May. However, last evening, the Sri Lanka Navy told the media that the fire onboard the ship was subsiding.

According to the officials, the type of rework operations requested by the vessel are routine. Also, the officials noted that a leak is not necessarily considered a distress signal if it can be contained. When the Port had been preparing to respond to this situation, the Port had received distress signals about a fire onboard the ship, the officials noted, adding, however, that the cause of the fire is yet unclear, as it could have been ignited due to the acid leakage or come from beneath the hatch as well.

Port officials further told The Morning that legal action has already been initiated by the Merchant Shipping Secretariat, which has filed a police complaint regarding the matter.

Commenting on the possibility of the ship sinking, officials at the Port told The Morning that it is unlikely as the fire is mostly under control as of last evening. However, an assessment of whether the ship can be towed further into the deep seas cannot, according to them, be done yet.

“In my over 15 years of working at the Colombo Port, this is the first time that the Port stopped normal operations during the past few days due to the prevalent weather conditions. The weather was not on our side this week, which caused the fire to spread rapidly through the ship. However, the situation is much better now,” an official told The Morning yesterday.

Meanwhile, speaking to The Morning yesterday, Shippers’ Academy Colombo Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Rohan Masakorala said that the disaster has no major impact on the shipping lanes and traffic to the country, although a potential oil spill is a cause for concern.

“The need to facilitate distress calls from ships is the ethical thing to do as a port. However, Sri Lanka is still lacking in terms of legal services, insurers, and technical expertise in the instance of such an incident. That is why I feel that we are more a transshipment hub, as opposed to a maritime hub,” Masakorala further said.

The MV X-Press Pearl came to Sri Lankan waters on 20 May, which was when a fire was reported onboard the ship. The condition worsened on 25 May, when an explosion caused 10 containers to fall into the ocean and a massive amount of debris to wash up on the western coast.