The Truth Hidden in the Ashes of the Burnt Ship
Aruna Lakshman Fernando
The ship X-Press Pearl drowned near the Colombo harbour. The author believes that it is reasonable to describe what took place as enormous environmental devastation than just another shipwreck. The burning of the vessel brought on irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s marine environment and biodiversity. It also negatively affected the country’s fisheries and tourism industries. Chemicals released from the wreck resulted in public health hazards such as acid rains. Discussions on social media and in the news whether the catastrophic shipwreck could have been prevented are ongoing.
Launched this year, X-Press Pearl is a ship owned by X-Press Feeders, an international transport company based in Singapore. A leak in a container comprising of nitric acid in the ship’s cargo hold has been reported as the cause behind the fatal fire. Tim Hartnoll, executive chairman of X-Press Feeders, told the internationally-acclaimed website splash247.com that the ship’s captain and the crew had first noted the chemical leak while sailing in the Arabian Sea, thousands of nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast. He also confirmed that the ship’s captain had requested permission to dock at the Indian Port of Hazira and Port Hamad of Qatar to repair the leaking container.
Along with the risk of a fire, the X-Press Pearl then proceeded directly to the Colombo port. On 28 May, the Ports Authority of Sri Lanka stated that the ship had contacted them on 19 May with the hope of entering Sri Lankan waters and the Colombo port the following day. However, the ship did not mention of a chemical leak aboard. The Ports Authority revealed that the vessel was allowed to remain anchored in the sea near the port until the harbour was ready. However, the next day, the ship’s local representatives sent an e-mail to the Harbour Master at the Colombo port requesting permission to repair two containers containing chemical stock.
Duly, the Harbour Master identified the X-Press Pearl’s fire hazard. A statement from the Ports Authority acknowledged that smoke rising from the ship was first observed on the afternoon of 20 May. However, the ship’s crew had the fire under control. When the second cloud of smoke appeared, the fire had already been put out by the Port Fire Brigade. It was not wise to keep a ship that had been refused entry by two ports as the Colombo port did not have additional security in the case of a fire outbreak. But the world now knows that the Sri Lankan port authorities allowed for that exact foolish step.
Taking all the above into account, one is led to conclude that the X-Press Pearl anchored near the port of Colombo at midnight on 19 May with the risk of catching fire. It was approximately twelve hours until noon the next day. The Ports Authority did not take any action to provide security or to move the vessel away from Sri Lankan waters even after the ship’s local agency notified them about the leak onboard by e-mail. It is not difficult for us to imagine what would have happened if this catastrophic fire had occurred after the ship entered the port. Allowing a potential hazard to enter a major port of a country, especially during a pandemic, is not an error in judgment that can be ignored.
X-Press Feeder’s Executive Chairman told the website splash247.com that the ports in India and Qatar refused entry to his ship. Dharshani Lahandupura, Chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, also verified the fact. However, in a statement issued by the Ports Authority on 28 May 2021 State Minister Nalaka Godahewa claimed that the ship had entered and operated in ports in India and Qatar. Such contradictory statements raise a doubt that some aspect of the incident is being hidden from public knowledge. Kindling further doubts, the identity of the ship’s local agent has not been revealed to date.
Every country is obliged to assist naval vessels in accident-prone situations. In compliance, we should have been able to retain the ship beyond Sri Lankan waters and tried to rescue the crew and protect the vessel with the assistance of neighbouring countries. Wasn’t it a grave mistake to attempt to bring a ship with such a dangerous chemical leak into a crowded port like Colombo? Who was responsible for that order? Shouldn’t people be answered on this? Instead, we have had to witness the nonsense of politicians who hastily attempted to cover the country’s dollar deficit with the money received from the owners of the X-Press Pearl, at the expense of environmental devastation beyond a price tag.