News

‘Why wasn’t India called in sooner?’

  • SJB calls for a new committee to investigate

By Pamodi Waravita

 

The Samagi Jana Balawega (SJB) yesterday (20) questioned why the Sri Lankan authorities took time to request help from India, despite the fire burning onboard the MV X-Press Pearl ship for about five days beforehand.

“The ship arrived on 19 May. From 20 May the fire was ongoing but only after five days was help from India requested. What were we doing in those five days and why did it take such a long time to request help?” asked SJB parliamentarian Mujibur Rahuman at a press conference yesterday.

Rahuman said that although the Government has appointed four committees of inquiry after the burning of the Express Pearl, the failure to appoint a committee to find out who is to blame is a “matter of serious suspicion” as it is the primary role of any responsible government to ensure that the culprits are held accountable to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“Did the Minister take decisions when necessary? First we have to find out whether there was a mistake in the administration. The Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has been transferred to the post of Secretary in another ministry.  By that action, is the Government not saying that the SLPA is responsible for this incident?” asked Rahuman.

He further alleged that the ship caught fire because decisions were not made on time and that the damage could have been minimised if the vessel had been brought in first and the leaking container removed from it.

The first fire aboard the MV X-Press Pearl was reported on 20 May, and the ship appealed for help from the SLPA, which attempted to douse the flames with the support of the Sri Lanka Navy but failed mainly due to the heavy winds. It is believed that using water to douse the chemical fire may also have resulted in its spread. It was only then that help was sought from the Indian Coastguard, and the fire was extinguished only on 1 June with Indian assistance.

Speaking to The Morning, shipping industry insiders questioned whether the owners of the ship had been informed of the nitric acid leak in one of its containers before entering Sri Lankan waters, adding that it is “impossible” to believe that this may not have been done so as current claims show that the leak was known to the Captain of the ship since it was in the Arabian Sea.

In last week’s court proceedings on the incident, President’s Counsel (PC) Sarath Jayamanne alleged that the local authorities allowed the fire to spread through the ship without taking any action against it to obtain compensation from it.

However, Deputy Solicitor General (DSG) Madhawa Tennakoon, speaking on behalf of the Attorney General’s Department, had charged that the Captain and his crew had hidden the acid leakage from Sri Lankan authorities when entering the country’s territorial waters.

The MV X-Press Pearl ship caught fire on 20 May, approximately nine nautical miles away from the Colombo Harbour, after having anchored there a few hours prior to the fire. A subsequent explosion on 24 May led to the fire spreading and a number of containers aboard it falling into the sea, thus releasing pollutants – including plastic pellets – into the water. Since then, debris and deceased marine life have washed up on the country’s Western coastline, heavily affecting both the fisheries industry and the country’s marine environment.