X-Press Pearl the ‘largest plastic spill on record’


  • UN Mission makes startling assessment of maritime disaster


BY Pamodi Waravita

The United Nations (UN) Environmental Advisory Mission on the maritime disaster caused by the MV X-Press Pearl vessel has stated that the increasing geographical extent of the plastic spill from the ship is the “largest on record”.

A total of 1,680 tonnes of environmentally harmful plastic pellets had been onboard the ship. In its report on the disaster, the Advisory Mission has called for a contamination analysis of the plastic waste from the ship, to refine clean up techniques, to minimise sand abstraction and recover sand particles, and to establish technical specifications for the completion of microplastic clean up operations.

The Mission has also recognised the commendable and efficient clean-up efforts of the Sri Lankan authorities, despite the hindrances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The MV X-Press Pearl ship caught fire on 20 May 2021 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.

Commenting on the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Plan co-ordinated by the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), the Mission has suggested that the plan be revised to consist of a snapshot assessment, a pollution hotspot assessment, and a long-term environmental monitoring plan for a more practical, useful, and efficient way of analysing the disaster.

Hence, the snapshot assessment urges a measurements campaign for an overview of the situation while the pollution hotspot assessment proposes focusing on the area around the shipwreck, the lost containers from the ship, and the shorelines where a large amount of plastic debris and other waste have washed up.

According to the Mission, the disaster has also affected approximately 20,000 fishing families and caused food security-related issues and malnutrition, as 70% of Sri Lanka depends on seafood for their animal protein intake.
“Chemical pollution and debris from the incident have created direct risks to the fishing sector, namely, concerning seafood-related safety, damages to fishing gear and other assets, and risks to fishermen from debris at sea.”
The Mission has added that the fishermen are demanding Rs. 3,000-4,000 per day as compensation whilst the Government has promised only a one-time payment of Rs. 5,000.

Notably, it has been found that the “analysis of dead fish found ashore and live samples collected through experimental fishing by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) have so far found few specimens with plastic pellets lodged around their gills”.

At the time of the incident, the ship was carrying 348 tonnes of fuel oil and 1,486 containers, of which 81 were carrying dangerous goods including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, caustic soda, and methanol.

X-Press Pearl the ‘largest plastic spill on record’