Preventing a repeat of the MV X-Press Pearl in our seas
What does this maritime disaster tell us about the systems Sri Lanka has in place, and how do we improve them?
By Ranjith Weerasinghe
This case study is not meant to find fault with any particular party, but to find the weaknesses in the system. It is believed that studying the truth will not hamper the Court’s decisions, or insurance claims, as some people tend to think.
Narration of the incident
In the case of the MV X-Press Pearl, the following are the facts of the vessel and her voyage in question.
The brand new vessel, built by the Chinese in 2021, is a 37,000 deadweight tonnage (DWT) vessel capable of accommodating 2,700 containers with 186 m length, 34.8m breadth, and 17.9m depth. The operators, X-Press Feeders of the Sea Consortium Group of Singapore, employed her in regular service, connecting Singapore, Jebel Ali (United Arab Emirates), Port Hamad (Qatar), Hazira (Gujarat, India), Colombo, and Port Kelang and Tanjung Pelepas (Malaysia), on an approximately 30 days of round voyage. The MV X-Press Pearl called on Colombo twice before her tragic third voyage.
On her way to Hamad from Jebel Ali, a container on deck said to be containing nitric acid had been noticed to be leaking. The captain had then, through the operators and agents, is said to have requested the re-arrangement of the container at Hamad, which had been turned down by the port for unknown reasons. The possibility of returning to Jebel Ali to discharge the leaking container also had been inquired by the master, to which the owners seem to have advised otherwise to proceed to the next stop, Port Hazira, where the arrangements were expected.
The Port of Hazira, advertised to be a state-of-the-art port in Gujarat operated by the Adani Group, refused to discharge the said container for reasons unknown, perhaps due to insufficient time. Her next scheduled port of call was Colombo, and complying with all entry requirements, she arrived on the midnight of 19 May, or in the early hours of 20 May.
The vessel had been asked to drop anchor 9.5 miles off the Colombo Harbour until her scheduled berth at the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) became vacant. On 20 May at around 10 a.m., the local agent of the vessel is said to have requested from the Colombo Port, via electronic mail, the arrangements to discharge and rework the leaking container. The master of the vessel is also said to have informed Port control around the same time, via very high frequency radio, of the need to remove a leaking container that was emanating yellow fumes. He had also informed a little while later that in addition to the fuming container on deck, there had been a fire inside the cargo hold number-two right under it, and that they had managed to contain it by flooding carbon dioxide (CO2) from the ship’s fixed fire installation.
Upon receipt of the said information, on 20 May morning, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), and other relevant parties had dispatched an inspection team aboard the vessel. Upon their assessment, it had been reported that the fire in the number-two cargo hold had been contained by the ship’s crew, although the leaky container on deck with acid was still emanating fumes. By 11.30 p.m. that night, the ship reported a fire onboard requiring assistance, to which the SLPA and SLN fire-fighting tug and other vessels proceeded to do so, and are said to have contained the fire in about two hours by using water from outside. Yet by 21 May morning, the fire was still not under control inside the cargo hold, and the tugs continued the firefight from outside using water jets.
The owner had apparently contracted a salvage company, whose tug arrived on 22 May at 4.30 p.m. It is said that an attempt had been made to fasten a tug at the aft end in order to turn the vessel to get the wind on the beam and divert the flames away from the vessel’s sides, preventing it from spreading along the length. It was said that the tug rope had parted.
From 24 May, cyclonic weather started, after which the fire spread rapidly along the length of the vessel. On 25 May, an explosion occurred, and the ship’s crew were evacuated whilst firefighting continued by a few tugs using water cannons, with no apparent containment. By 31 May, almost the entire load of containers on deck were destroyed.
On 1 June, there was no visible fire on deck other than smoke from heated debris, and the salvors and the SLN personnel climbed onboard only to find that the engine room had been totally flooded, indicating danger of sinking. The next move was to make an attempt to tow the vessel to deep sea, but she started sinking from her aft end, and subsequently the forward end too, and was finally well grounded on the seabed on 2 June.
With a leaking nitric acid container onboard, the master of the MV X-Press Pearl seems to have managed to call not only the immediate next port of call, but three ports in a row without a fire, asking for help to remove the leaking container. The container with the nitric acid, probably in tanks loaded on the first tier on deck on the number-two hatch, had been leaking since departure from Jebel Ali, 10 days prior.
The chances of the nitric acid eating into the rubber beading and penetrating even steel, to find its way into the cargo hold and into another container with combustible material, is an obvious possibility, as nothing else has been reported as going wrong. Nitric acid reacts with many organic materials, metals, alcohol, turpentine, etc., and such cargo were in the below-deck containers as far as it was allowed by the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code).
From the day she arrived at Colombo anchorage (19 May night), the weather was bad. Strong winds and rough seas prevailed throughout. On 24 May, it worsened with the cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. Under the weather that prevailed during the time, whatever action to avoid a subsequent disaster in Colombo should have been done between 19 May night and 23 May morning,
Inspection report by the SLPA lead team vital, but not known
The failure in connecting a tug rope at the aft end to turn the vessel to get the wind on beam to minimise the spread of the fire along the vessel was an important event that was missed, and there is no indication of repeated attempts to perform that vital action. The critical point at which the decision of whether or not to give up the firefight and tow away the vessel seems in vain, given the final load of debris that ended up on deck, indicating no apparent success in dousing the fire, but partly a natural exhaust of the material to burn.
Firefighting with water also filled up the vessel’s compartments to increase the bodily linkage, and towards the last days, flooded the engine room, increased the aft draft, and caused the loss of stability due to shortened water plane length.
In comparison, let us examine another incident that took place in April 2017. MSC Daniela was a larger container vessel of 366m length, 51m width, 162,867 tonne capacity, with an ability to load 14,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers operated by the Mediterranean Shipping Company. She was on her way from the Far East to Europe.
She had a container fire onboard whilst she was 120 nautical miles away from Colombo. Upon receiving a distress message from the Vessel on 4 April 2017 by Sri Lanka’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) operated by the SLN, assistance was provided by the SLPA, SLN, and Indian Coast Guard, along with a private tug operator arranged by the vessel’s Sri Lankan agent. The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) was also involved in the operation.
The firefighting continued whilst the vessel proceeded to just about 13 miles off Colombo, and after 10 days of battling the fire at the Colombo anchorage, in the open seas, the vessel was brought to the CICT on 14 April 2017, whilst the fire was still not doused completely. Fire-fighting continued even at the berth while some of the damaged containers were removed.
Finally, the fire was doused successfully, all containers including the ones that were damaged by the fire were unloaded, and the vessel was sent to China for repairs. In this incident, Sri Lanka’s professionalism and skillful handling as a regional hub port operator was praised by the shipping and maritime community the world over.
The MV X-Press Pearl on the other hand, arrived in Colombo on a scheduled port call, with no fire reported, but only with a leaky nitric acid container on deck that was emanating brown or yellow fumes, but ended up in a major disaster. Leaving aside the commissions and omissions of acts of the master and the crew, we need to look at a few critical points and vital moments as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, and thus possible windows of opportunity to avoid the subsequent disaster that ensued.
First window of opportunity – Chances of berthing the vessel on arrival
Did the master of the vessel request to discharge the leaking container on arrival in Sri Lanka? Did the ship owning company, through their Colombo agent, not take immediate steps to request the port to discharge the leaking container on priority berthing? Did the master not emphasise to the port control the danger he experienced with the leaking container onboard, taking into account the safety of the crew, the environment, the vessel, and the cargo? If the master of the vessel, having informed the owner and in turn the local agent of the need to get the leaking container out, what seems to have prevented the SLPA from arranging berthing the vessel on a priority basis?
Second window of opportunity – Chances of berthing after inspection
Even if there was no prior information about a leaky chemical container needing urgent attention, on the subsequent report of a container emanating strange fumes, and thereafter a fire in the hold that was said to have been doused with CO2, despite the inspection team reporting that no urgent action was needed, it indicates that there was some sort of an emergency onboard that would require more urgent attention, especially considering that the vessel had dispensed completely with its main firefighting mechanisms.
When the master reported that the fire was in the cargo hold right below the deck where the leaking nitric acid container was placed, was it checked as to what cargo was in the containers in the hold right underneath, considering the possibility of highly corrosive nitric acid finding its way into the hold? Was it known from the material data sheets that nitric acid mixing with some other chemicals that were present under deck could have made them explosive? Was there a chance to berth the vessel even at this stage to discharge the leaking container?
Third window of opportunity
Even after the lapse of the two first windows of opportunities, and when the fire really broke out by the late evening of 20 May at 11.20 p.m., what was the plan and preparedness to fight an obvious fire in the cargo inside a container inside the number-two cargo hold, above which there were several stacks of containers? Was there a possibility and early arrangement or readiness of replenishing the CO2 cylinder bank urgently? Was there a large volume of foam (say a number of 1,000 litre tanks) that could have been carried on a tug connected to a tug’s foam system or fire hose through an applicator, to smother the entire number-two cargo-hold completely?
In summary, the three available “early actions” to douse a fire are replenishing the CO2 cylinder bank and containing the fire before subsequently attacking the seat of the fire, smothering the entire cargo-hold with high expansion foam and flooding the number-two cargo-hold fully with water (37,000 DWT), as the ship meant for 2,700 containers was carrying 1,486 containers and had enough room for flooding the hold, as it posed a low percentage of permeability with the full load of the cargo containers being inside.
- The first window
Even for the agent, a seasoned customer of the port, there seems to be no apparent confidence in the system to report the issue, probably as the system is not customer friendly or accommodative, or the process is lengthy and inefficient. The chance is that going through the unofficial path was seen as the convenient and express way to resolve the matter (a cultural issue not fit for an intended maritime hub), resulting in a probable backdoor misfire.
- The second window:
The absence of an emergency evaluation process and a suitably trained team. The evaluation process failed to recognise the imminent danger and prepare for it. There is no such compulsion to the SLPA by law to assess the situation for firefighting only to see if berthing is possible or not.
- The third window
Who should fight the fire was not laid down, and the lack of readiness of the equipment and material at hand for urgent deployment proved another issue. Based on the evaluation and assessment, there should have been a level of preparedness that includes the available options being shared amongst those who should fight the fire. The method of fire-fighting was confined to splashing water from outside, when the seat of the fire was inside a container within the cargo hold, which could have been reached only at the early stages of the fire – but this does not seem to have been thought of in ample time. There is no such compulsion by law again for the SLPA to fight a fire, questioning as to who should do so, as per the laid down regulations (which are non-existent).
The main reason behind the above background causes, or the common denominator of all three windows, is the absence of facilitating laws and regulations, instead of policing laws, with legal compulsion to adhere to a well-developed system to intervene in the case of an emergency. It is not just response teams and equipment that are required, but an effective, time-tested mechanism for a maritime emergency response unit to be well-documented under the laws of the country, and the necessary regulations being promulgated by the law to delegate the different responsibilities within such a system to all stakeholders to effectively mobilise.
With regard to the loss of the ship and the damage to the marine environment, mistakes are a luxury that nobody can afford. The ship’s loss was recovered by H&M Insurance. The cargo interest claims are recovered by cargo insurance or from the ship’s protection and indemnity insurance (P&I), as the general average declared earlier is of no value since the vessel and cargo are total losses.
All other claims are to be paid mainly by the ship’s P&I insurance and other pollution funds available in the industry. The salvors get no reward other than expenses – which would be the Sri Lankan parties who conducted the initial firefight – as there is no salvage value. The pollution damages are resolved on the Doctrine of Strict Liability (works out to a meagre US $ 12 million) and any additional claims through litigation.
Pollution by hazardous and noxious substances involves the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea and Fund coming into play for additional claims, but the status quo is unclear. Concerning salvage and wreck removal, the State’s responsibility for a wreck is only if the owner abandons it; yet wreck removal costs will be higher than the scrap value.
It must be noted that what cannot be measured, cannot be controlled or improved. However, the following areas need immediate attention and action, pursuant to the lessons learnt from both recent incidents – regarding the MT New Diamond and MV X-Press Pearl – and the successful handling of MSC Daniela.
The Minister in charge must initiate and establish a maritime emergency response group under the existing or revised Merchant Shipping Act to deal with maritime emergencies. The Merchant Shipping Act must be revamped to make the Merchant Shipping Director General and its Secretariat to be the sole correspondent (representative) of the International Maritime Organisation for maritime matters onboard ships, with the jurisdiction of all waters around the country to be their sole responsible authority, to execute the internationally agreed Conventions and Resolutions, and to be the locally responsible party during intervention.
It is more logical and scientific if responsibility over shipping, ports, all maritime affairs, maritime industries, coastal affairs, fisheries, and the marine environment are all within one Ministry. The revised Merchant Shipping Act, so empowered, must define the roles of the other agencies in any applicable maritime affair, and delegate such duties to the SLPA, SLN, MEPA, Sri Lanka Coast Guard, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Customs, Immigration and Emigration Department, etc. It must also identify and document the emergency response roles of other agencies.
The relevant authority must also maintain appropriate and sufficient resources, assets, equipment, and facilities for emergencies. In that regard, the private sector could be encouraged to have suitably trained emergency response and salvage teams and equipment that can be enlisted by the said authority in an emergency, because maintaining such resources by the Government alone will not be economical with immediate mobilisation mechanisms.
A responsible communication mechanism to co-ordinate the dissemination of appropriate and accurate information is required. Even if the State is not a party to international conventions to render assistance to a vessel in need, it becomes paramount to do so, as the failure to help only results in imminent danger to one’s own marine environment. Finally, it is essential to enhance the reputation of the country as a capable maritime nation, which in turn helps the maritime industry in particular, and Sri Lanka as a nation in general.
(The writer is a Captain)