The saga is just beginning

The X-Press Pearl saga that has been unravelling for the past two weeks has succeeded in exposing all that is wrong with Sri Lanka’s quest to become a regional maritime hub. The destructive trail left in the wake of the sinking ship has raised many questions ranging from security lapses to infrastructure issues to foreign policy matters to legal inequities. For the record, this is the third serious maritime and shipping issue to surface in just the past nine months and is now the subject of a criminal investigation. The previous two were near-misses that had the potential to create even greater environmental destruction, if not for what now seems like divine intervention.

The first incident in September 2020 was the one involving a fully laden oil tanker, New Diamond, just off the southern coast, carrying an estimated 270,000 metric tonnes (MT) of crude oil. Had the fire that erupted in the ship’s boiler room not been contained with the timely assistance of neighbour India, it would have been apocalyptic for the marine environment around the island.

The second incident was the sudden berthing of a China-bound vessel at the Hambantota Port in April this year, citing a “mechanical emergency”. It emerged later, while the ship had already docked, that it was carrying “dangerous cargo”. Even at the time of berthing, the ship had failed to disclose details of its cargo which later happened to be identified as uranium hexafluoride – a highly radioactive material – violating international maritime laws as well as the Atomic Energy Authority Act which requires the full disclosure of such cargo. Matters were further compounded when the Sri Lanka Navy were allegedly barred from boarding the ship for inspection.

It is only after the authorities were made aware of the cargo onboard that the ship was ordered to leave the port immediately.

The third and most destructive episode in this unfolding maritime saga is the X-Press Pearl incident. Today, theories abound as to what triggered and then exacerbated the disaster: Whether the ship was seaworthy owing to its dangerous payload; whether the local authorities were informed of the dangerous cargo onboard and the leaking container, and if so, whether permission was granted for the ship to sail to Colombo; whether the full cargo manifest was submitted 24 hours prior to arrival in keeping with maritime laws; whether the last port of call in India informed Colombo of the ship’s problem; whether the captain and the crew of the ship had acted in keeping with emergency response guidelines; whether the firefighting efforts were delayed for some reason; whether the equipment available was adequate; whether proper techniques were utilised in attempting to douse a chemical-based fire; whether the ship should have been towed before inspecting and removing any fuel it still held; etc. The questions keep multiplying by the day.

But one question that begs to be answered is whether the scale of the destruction could have been mitigated to at least some extent using available resources. According to the Marine Environment Protection Agency (MEPA), it has the necessary equipment currently in place to mitigate the effects of a possible oil spill, owing to the rupture of the ship’s bunkers, believed to be containing around 300 MT of fuel. If so, why were these not mobilised when the ship was on fire for over 12 days? Which action could have significantly reduced the destruction?

According to the cargo manifest, the ship was carrying various types of hazardous chemicals such as 25 tonnes of nitric acid, lead ingots, epoxy resins, paint and primers, ethanol, caustic soda, aluminum byproducts, lubricating oils, polyethene, microplastic pellets, and one container labelled as “environmentally harmful substances”, the contents of which are still unknown. It is this deadly cocktail that is now mixed into the water that is lapping on our scenic beaches. Environmentalists have warned that the contaminated microplastic pellets could end up on the east coast in the next few weeks due to changing weather patterns and be part of the ocean ecosystem for generations to come.

If MEPA mobilised fast enough, the plastic pellets along with the chemical sludge could have been swooped up from the sea before it reached the shores and much of the damage that has ensued could have been prevented. This points to the unpreparedness of the various authorities in handling an event of this scale, even though Sri Lanka is being projected as a regional maritime hub. At the heart of the confusion is the matter of jurisdiction with different agencies working at cross purposes instead of acting in concert. The agencies cannot be blamed in the absence of a template on who should be in charge and how the agencies should act in an emergency situation.

Further underlining the systemic failure has been the inability of the authorities to secure the all-important Voyage Data Recorder at the time the crew was evacuated, for it is the one piece of equipment that will potentially hold all the clues to the puzzle. Now, the device will have to be fished out from the mangled wreckage lying on the seabed.

For a port that aspires to be a hub, the absence of a contingency plan speaks volumes of those who have warmed the seats at the Ministry of Shipping all these years. Subsequent governments, especially in the last decade, have collectively failed to come to terms with the fact that aspirations need to be matched with substance, for otherwise, hub status will remain a pipe dream. The cart before the horse policy of investing in billion-dollar ports and terminals while the most basic of infrastructure was missing must surely offer some food for thought.

Be that as it may, the recent string of maritime incidents has also tested and exposed serious security lapses where vessels with dangerous cargo have sailed into the country’s ports sans the knowledge or approval of relevant agencies. In the case of the X-Press Pearl, investigations are still ongoing as to determine how a ship – a ticking time bomb that had been rejected by two other ports, in Qatar and India – was permitted to sail into Colombo without hindrance.

According to the Harbour Master, the ship had not developed a fire at the time it had arrived in the outer harbour, although the captain of the ship had reported a chemical leak from a container. The fire had reportedly begun a few hours after the ship had dropped anchor. According to experts, chemicals that emit smoke do not necessarily mean fire. For a fire to be triggered, a chemical must come into contact with other substances, including water in some cases, which may trigger a reaction leading to a fire. If at some point it is established that the firefighting methods adopted contributed to the fire, then it is likely to have an impact on the impending compensation claims.

Besides the security issues, the home truth that has emerged from the murky waters is the country’s dependence on neighbour India whenever a push comes to shove. It is India’s intervention that saved the day in dousing the blaze on board the New Diamond and now the X-Press Pearl. All things considered, reciprocation of India’s “neighbour first” policy is likely to come in handy in more ways than one.

Another key issue that has surfaced is the legal lacuna in effectively dealing with a maritime disaster of this scale. It is this lacuna that allowed the New Diamond to sail away, having supposedly paid a meagre $ 2.3 million in compensation. Where those funds went is yet unclear. According to estimates, the damage caused by the X-Press Pearl could amount to a staggering $ 5 billion. Already, the CEO of the owning company of the ill-fated ship has hinted that the process of paying out compensation and other reparations will be a long process.

Due legal process will also help allay growing suspicions surrounding the incident. Already, conspiracy theories abound with Opposition parties and even the Catholic clergy casting aspersions of a bigger scheme of things at play, while a senior minister’s observation that compensation payment will help ease the country’s current economic issues has been grist to the mill. Last Wednesday, the Catholic clergy raised the spectre of a conspiracy to destroy the fishing industry on the west coast in order to provide free rein to the operators of the new Port City. The contradictory messages from key ministers have not helped the cause either, with the Environment Minister claiming that even if compensation of Rs. 100 billion is obtained, it will not cover the environmental damage caused, while another influential minister has expressed doubts about obtaining compensation. As more things unravel, it is becoming clear that the saga of the X-Press Pearl is only beginning.