Focus/Spotlight

MV X-Press Pearl inferno: Devastating blow to marine life  

  • Not clear if bunker oil in vessel survived inferno: MEPA 

  • Plastic pellets tend to absorb chemicals as they move: Dr. de Vos 

  • Increase in deaths of marine life reported: Katuwawala 

  • Thorough assessment required to initiate legal action: Lawyer  

  • Not easy to assess environmental damage: Minister 

By Yumiko Perera 

 

The MV X-Press Pearl catastrophe goes down as the biggest maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, and the magnitude of marine pollution as a result, is something the island has not witnessed before. 

Authorities are bracing for a major oil spill off the coast of Colombo, as the X-Press Pearl vessel is slowly being swallowed by the ocean, and the environmental devastation it has brought along may be irreversible. 

Carrying 325 tonnes of fuel in its tanks, the X-Press Pearl caught fire 9.5 nautical miles away from the port of Colombo, where it had initially been anchored. The vessel was loaded with 1,486 containers carrying nearly 25 MT of nitric acid, along with several other types of raw material and chemicals. 

While the impacts of the chemicals would be more localised and short term, the magnitude of the plastic that has been released into the ocean is unnerving. 

Several containers had fallen overboard, dispersing tonnes of plastic pellets and other hazardous material into the ocean. The tiny plastic pellets have polluted beaches and threatened the ecological balance of the surrounding marine environment. 

While the fire was reportedly sparked by a leak of nitric acid on the ship, a major operation was launched to extinguish the fire that consumed the vessel. 

The fire aboard the ship had finally been doused following efforts by the Sri Lankan Navy, Sri Lanka Coast Guard, with the aid of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) that carried out joint firefighting and pollution control efforts to stabilise the situation. 

The efforts to tow the vessel into deeper waters had failed, and it had ultimately succumbed to damages, and things only seem to be going from bad to worse. There is a visible layer of oil floating alongside the vessel that has alarmed authorities, and the ecological threat it poses is unimaginable. 

While the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) says it is prepared to face any possible oil spill from the sinking X-Press Pearl vessel, according to MEPA Chairperson Darshani Lahandapura, it is not yet clear whether the bunker oil on board the vessel had survived the inferno. 

According to Lahandapura, in case of possible oil spillage, oil containment booms would be positioned around the vessel and chemical dispersants would be aerially dropped to prevent any leakage and act as damage control. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, Lahandapura further stated that MEPA is working towards preventing marine pollution due to the plastic pellets that have been dispersed across the beaches. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, renowned marine biologist and Founder of Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation and education research organisation, Oceanswell, Dr. Asha de Vos stated: “Plastic pellets tend to absorb chemical toxins from the environment and as they move around, they move these chemical toxins with them. This is something that would happen over time but if these pellets are in the water long enough to absorb certain toxins, they could be ingested by species. 

“The species that are most at risk in that situation are small fish species that could digest these pellets and even choke on them, but research that has been conducted across the world shows that larger species can also excrete them if ingested. 

“We still don’t understand what would happen to these species if the pellets are contaminated with chemicals.” 

According to Dr. de Vos, research shows that the sheer amount of plastic on the beaches tends to increase the temperature levels of the sand, and could alter the breeding of certain species. 

“There is a lot of plastic on the beaches, the temperatures of the beach would increase, and this is also been shown in other parts of the world, and this can impact turtle nesting sites, as the gender of a hatchling is determined by the temperature of the sand, so this could skew hatchling ratios,” reiterated Dr. de Vos. 

“We are still trying to work through the short and long-term impacts, but right now, these are the main impacts that we can talk about. We also mustn’t forget how much this would impact the livelihood of the people that are solely dependent on the ocean,” Dr. de Vos elaborated. 

“Our tourism industry depends on people coming to see these beaches. While we are in a pandemic right now, hopefully at some point, we will be able to open up for tourism, and that is another aspect we need to take into account,” Dr. de Vos stated in conclusion. 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, The Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala stated: “It is estimated that at least three containers of micro-pellets had fallen overboard the vessel, and at least 4-5 billion pellets have been scattered across the ocean. Each pellet is about 20 milligrams, and if you do the math, you would be able to understand how much micro-plastics have been released into the ocean.” 

“Looking at the footage, it’s clear that there was indeed an oil spill, but the extent of it is not very clear. The same type of spillage was visible in the MT New Diamond a while back,” explained Katuwawala. 

“These plastic pellets are a little larger than your average rice grain. With time, they absorb toxins from the ocean and turn darker in colour which is an indicator that they have absorbed a certain level of toxins. 

“Marine animals may mistake it for food and consume it which ultimately impacts their health. It can be long term, and it can be short term, but I cannot say for sure; but we have been getting a lot of reports of different marine animals that have been found dead. Then again, we don’t know if it’s correlated to the incident.” 

Katuwawala added that there needs to be scientific research to back these claims, but what can be said clearly is that there has been an increase in deaths of marine life being reported. 

“If you look at other countries where similar incidents had occurred, there had been a significant impact on marine life as well.” 

Referring to a similar incident in Hong Kong in 2012, Katuwawala went on to say: “Seven containers had fallen overboard in the adjacent waters of Hong Kong and even now, plastic pellets can be found in the shorelines. We don’t know how many pellets are still underwater. We don’t know how many sacks of pellets are still intact, and with time, these containers tend to reform. 

“It could only be a matter of time until we start to see these pellets wash up on the shorelines again, and this has happened in Hong Kong where these plastic pellets had washed up on the beaches even months after the disaster.” 

Speaking with The Sunday Morning, maritime lawyer and former Executive Director of the Ceylon Shipping Corporation Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera stated: “Since the ship is almost sunk, there is an imminent threat of a bunker oil spill. So, we don’t know whether there would be an oil spill or not, it all depends on how stable the wreck is now. If the vessel does indeed completely sink, there would be further pollution, and it would be much bigger and greater than what we experienced a few days back. 

“We have to do a thorough assessment of the damage that has occurred, and thereafter, we have to file a case against the polluter, who in this case is the shipowner.” 

Emphasising that there are certain weak areas in our law that authorities have failed to overcome over the years, Dr. Dan went on to say: “Apart from the civil action that would be taken in this regard, criminal action could also be opted for under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka as well as the Marine Pollution Prevention Act, against the responsible parties.” 

According to Dr. Dan, the decision to tow the vessel away would not hinder the compensation process. 

He stated: “There are certain aspects through which charges can be made in this regard, and the Government should seek to get the highest level of compensation. We can press charges and seek compensation against the ship’s owners regardless of the state the vessel is in right now. The vessel can’t be towed anymore because the vessel has already sunk. The wreck now belongs to Sri Lanka. Only Sri Lanka has the right to remove the wreck at this point, and the ownership of the wreck goes to the Merchant Shipping Secretariat.” 

Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, speaking with The Sunday Morning, stated that calculating the damage that the X-Press Pearl catastrophe has caused to the environment would not be easy. 

“Investigations are underway to determine what went wrong and whether the shipping company was responsible, and if this disaster has happened due to negligence, then those responsible would be brought to book,” he stated. 

According to Merchant Shipping Secretariat Director General Ajith Seneviratne, necessary steps have been initiated with all the stakeholders including the insurance companies to secure compensations for the damages that have ensued, The Sunday Morning learnt. 

Seneviratne stated that claims would be made through the Attorney General to get total compensation, and the owners of the ship had also agreed to make an interim report as well as support in cleaning up the beaches that have been heavily polluted by the debris.

A group of environmentalists, along with fishermen filed an FR petition before the Supreme Court on 4 June, requesting the authorities to carry out a systematic probe into how the X-Press Pearl vessel had entered Sri Lankan waters.

Moreover, it is learnt that the Sri Lanka Navy and the Merchant Shipping Secretariat are to hand over the Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) of the MV X-Press Pearl vessel to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for further investigations.

 

PHOTOS © The Pearl Protectors 


‘Wreck has to settle on seabed before assessing situation’ 

 

In an interview with Channel News Asia (CNA) on Thursday 3 June, X-Press Feeders CEO Shmuel Yoskovitz stated that no oil spill has been detected thus far. 

“First of all, I’d like to express my deep regrets and apologies to the Sri Lankan people for this incident, and the inconvenience that this has caused to their livelihood and the environment. Since the incident started we have engaged with the International Tanker Oil Pollution fund who are experts in monitoring environmental problems. We have been on the case since then. I would like to say that there has been no oil spill thus far, as of 3 June, and there has been no oil pollution detected,” Yoskovitz stated. 

Answering CNA’s query in regard to reparations and compensation for the environmental damage, Yoskovitz stated: “This is now being assessed, we need to bear in mind that this will be a long process first of all to see when this incident will be over and then to assess the total damages. We have already started engaging with the Sri Lankan authorities such as the Marine Environmental Protection Agency, and we are working in cooperation with the Sri Lankan Navy. The beach cleanups have commenced, and we also need to remember that Sri Lanka is now under lockdown, it is very hard to mobilise people and we are very thankful to MEPA and to the Navy for mobilising people. We have contributed some heavy equipment to help clean up the beaches from our side.” 

Speaking on the present situation of the vessel, Yoskovitz stated: “The vessel’s aft has sunk, it is now laying on the seabed at about 21 metres and its forward part is slowly sinking. To assess the real situation, we would need to wait for the wreck to settle on the seabed, and then see what really can be done. Currently, what the salvors are doing is monitoring the wreck and making sure that any debris or God forbid, an oil spill will be detected quickly and handled accordingly.”