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MV X-Press Pearl maritime disaster: Has SL done enough multi-sectoral damage control?

MV X-Press Pearl maritime disaster: Has SL done enough multi-sectoral damage control?

05 Apr 2023 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • CEJ study queries effectiveness of GoSL measures taken so far whilst highlighting the need to go beyond the immediate to safeguard the marine ecosystem and fisheries industry based economy  

The MV X-Press Pearl maritime disaster, which was named the biggest maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, led to a number of discourses on the country’s maritime laws and policies, the response to the disaster, and also about the medium- to long-term impacts of the same. While the former and present governments have taken various measures in this regard, environmentalists have raised concerns about the effectiveness of those measures, and have pointed out the importance of going beyond immediate measures. That is because the impacts of the incident have a great potential to affect the country’s marine ecosystem and the fisheries industry based economy.

A study report released this week discussed such impacts. The report titled Impact of the MV X-Press Pearl Ship Disaster on the Coastal Environment from Negombo to Benthota was issued by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ). 

The MV X-Press Pearl disaster occurred on 25 May 2021, when the Singapore flagged MV X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire in Sri Lankan waters, North West of Colombo, releasing chemical fumes. The ship carried 1,486 containers of chemicals, including nurdles, low and high density polythene, methanol, sodium methoxide, nitric acid, urea, vinyl acetate, epoxy resin, and lubricant oil. There were 81 potentially hazardous containers also, including lithium ion batteries, copper slags, lead ingots, and electronic items that typically contain dangerous compounds.

Last month (March), it was reported that a decision had been taken by the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development to re-summon the relevant parties to further review matters pertaining to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, which included discussing and settling the legal matters, obtaining financial facilities for the scientific committee for its research, and removing the legal obstacles to reach the ship for research.

The study

The MV X-Press Pearl disaster entailed several forms of threats to the environment. While air pollution, which was created by the fire that erupted on the vessel, was the immediate threat, various forms of contents in the containers, such as plastics and chemicals, spilling into the sea was identified as a much bigger, long term threat. In addition, a large quantity of various parts of the ship falling into the sea was identified as a threat. The report noted that the MV X-Press Pearl disaster was a multi-faceted and complicated disaster which involved numerous environmental issues that could have significant long term, medium term, and short term consequences. The overall goal of this study, which was conducted from October to December 2021, was to document chemical contamination in the coastal waters from Negombo to Bentota by analysing, among others, water samples, biological samples and biotoxins (chemical substances produced by bacteria, plants, and fungi that serve as a biological defence and poison). It further aimed to determine the adverse effects of the MV X-Press Pearl disaster to the natural ecosystem, aquatic animals, people in the surrounding areas, fishermen, and fish consumers, which the report said suffered substantial consequences. The study area for the project was from the Negombo Lagoon to Bentota in the Southern Province.

Environmental impacts

The report explained that the current findings have revealed that the average pH (a measure of how acidic or basic water is) of the coastal sites that were studied has decreased, compared to the previous study. An analysis of the average N-Nitrate concentration in the study’s coastal areas, the report said, has revealed a rise in N-Nitrate concentrations. Noting that HNO3 (Nitric acids) and urea were being transported by the MV X-Press Pearl ship, it was further explained that the high nitrate levels in coastal waters may have been caused by the high nitrogen content released, particularly near the study's sampling locations, during the disaster. “The COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand, the measure of the capacity of water to consume oxygen during the decomposition of organic matter in the water) of the immediate vicinity of the MV X-Press Pearl ship was exceptionally high, but the COD of the distant areas is relatively low. As a result, the inorganic and organic compounds released by the MV X-Press Pearl ship may have contaminated coastal water, leading to pollution,” the report added. In addition, noting that the concentrations of chlorophyll-A (which allows plants including algae to use sunlight to convert simple molecules into organic compounds, a process known as photosynthesis) in the coastal belt locations were studied, the report said that the highest chlorophyll-A concentration was recorded in areas near the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, while the lowest was along the Bentota coast. It cautioned that this situation could, due to various resultant processes in the area, pose a threat to the ecological balance in the marine water around the area where the MV X-Press Pearl ship sank. “One of the most serious environmental problems posed by the MV X-Press Pearl disaster were turtle deaths. According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, 50 dead turtles had washed up on the beach as of 20 May 2021, and soon after the disaster, there was an increase in the number of turtle deaths, of 176 on 30 June 2021, 250 on 17 July 2021, and 417 on 30 July 2021. On a continuous basis, the carcasses were collected five to six months after the disaster and 45 cetacean carcasses were recorded on 17 July 2021. Since the incident, 56 marine mammals, including 48 dolphins and eight whales, have washed up on the beach. However, it is important to highlight that the shipwreck and lost containers pose a danger to marine wildlife as potential chemical and oil pollution sources until they are recovered. Furthermore, marine wildlife could be harmed by the ingestion of or entanglement with plastic pellets, polyester yarns, and other debris from the incident. According to marine wildlife experts, plastic pellets may also pose a danger to turtle reproduction because their presence in nesting sites may alter sediment temperature, which is a critical factor in determining the sex of turtle offspring. The plastic spill occurred during the crucial nesting season (April-May), when the number of turtles in Sri Lanka's coastal waters is at its highest.”

Economic and social impacts

Explaining that the MV X-Press Pearl disaster’s impacts were not only environmental but also social and economic, the report added: “The MV X-Press Pearl disaster has had a significant impact on the incomes of Sri Lankan coastal fishing communities, particularly those whose livelihoods are dependent on fishing grounds that were contaminated by the incident's pollution. The reduction in the food supply had significantly affected the Sri Lankan consumer overall (fish, shrimp, crab, etc.). Furthermore, public fear of consuming “contaminated fish” exacerbated by a substantial increase in turtle and dolphin deaths, had reportedly harmed consumer confidence, particularly in the early weeks of the incident. As a result, sales and consumption of seafood had reduced across the country. In a country where seafood accounts for 70% of the animal protein intake, this has significant implications for food security and malnutrition.” As per the report, due to various steps taken in the aftermath of the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, including restrictions on fishing activities in the surrounding areas, the livelihoods of 20,000 fishing families are estimated to have been harmed, while many others, from net manufacturers to boat owners, whose livelihoods depend on allied fishing activities, have also been affected. What is more, it was noted that the impact on the surrounding population has been significant, with estimates putting the number of fishermen affected at around 16,000. “Damages to the fishing net and gear also account for the pelagic fishing community's livelihood. The MV X-Press Pearl fire has disrupted the fisheries supply chain from fishers to processors to wholesalers and retail merchants. On the other hand, it increased the complexity of the fishing community in the existing structural economic and social imbalance. Because they are daily income earners, the coastal fishing community, which is one of the three sub-sectors of Sri Lanka's fisheries sector, is the most vulnerable. The ability of a fisherman's family to meet their basic needs is significantly impacted by even a single day's loss of income. Furthermore, most of those who work in this field have no other sources of income. “The cost to replace nets and boat-parts is very high, and their loss can significantly impact a fisherman's earnings for the entire season. As a result, a wide range of people whose livelihoods depend on related fishing operations, from net manufacturers to boat owners, have been impacted differently. The MV X-Press Pearl container ship disaster harmed all fishery development in the study area, and the economic and environmental damages incurred due to the disaster are yet to be calculated.”

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