The X-press Pearl disaster and an island still ablaze 

Kamani Hettiarachchi

It is no surprise that the media have let the X-press Pearl ship disaster slip by when the country itself symbolises a sunken ship. However, the effects of the damage caused to the country’s economy and the ocean by the X-press Pearl ship explosion in Sri Lanka’s waters on May 20, 2021 will last for generations to come. 

The X-press Pearl, sailing under the flag of Singapore, was carrying chemicals and plastic materials when it exploded some 09 nautical miles northwest of the port of Colombo, causing incalculable damage to the ocean and marine life of the country. During a meeting held at Sethsiripaya on August 23, it was revealed that despite the serious damage caused to Sri Lanka, the authorities have not been able to secure the compensation due to the country, although more than a year had passed. 

Urban Development and Housing Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said the Maritime Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) should take urgent steps to seek compensation from the ship’s owners and also formulate new laws if the existing laws were not sufficient to deal with ship accidents such as this. 

Attending this meeting, MEPA Chairperson Darshani Lahandapola, an attorney-at-law, explained the many adverse effects on Sri Lanka due to the X-press Pearl disaster. According to her, the cleanup of the beaches contaminated by the ship’s chemical and plastic cargo began in May 2021 covering a 746 km stretch. The worst affected were the areas around the Negombo Lagoon and the Pamunugama Pakkukanda beach. The ship caught fire due to the nitric acid stored on board. Some of the cargo in the 1,486 containers it was carrying was thrown into the sea following the explosion before the vessel eventually sank. Described as the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s history and the single worst incident of plastic marine pollution in the world, the calamity saw the 746-kilometre-long coastline from Mannar to Hambantota being polluted by the acid leak and tiny plastic pellets. So far, some 1,600 metric tonnes of plastic and chemical substances have been removed from the sea and the coast and stored in rented warehouses in Pamunugama. The next step will be decided in accordance with the Attorney General’s advice.

The Government has so far spent Rs. 93,857,293 for cleaning the coastline from Mannar to Hambantota. According to the MEPA Chairperson, completing the clean-up activities will take a few more years.

After the explosion of the ship, a decision was taken to assess the harm caused to the environment on the basis of invisible and visible damage. The government appointed a team of 40 field experts to calculate the environmental damage. Professor Ajith de Alwis, dean of the Post-Graduate Studies Faculty of the University of Moratuwa, and Professor Prashanthi Gunawardena from the Department of Environmental Studies, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, were appointed as its co-chairs.

The expert committee received the support of 14 institutions, including the Central Environmental Authority, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Government Analyst’s Departments, and laboratories in Britain, Australia, and France.

However, theirs is a difficult task because the full scale of the damage cannot be seen with the naked eye alone. It involves socioeconomic costs, as the fishermen were directly affected by the explosion. After the incident, for a considerable period, they were barred from venturing out to the sea. They launched a series of protests, calling on the government to take measures to provide them with adequate compensation and clean up the sea.

Expressing his opinion on the X-press Pearl disaster and the way the authorities reacted, Hemantha Withanage, the President of the Friends of the Earth International Organisation, said the company that registered the ship and the company that handled the transport operations of the ship were not getting involved in the case and only an organisation called ITOP was dealing with an insurance company called P&I. 

“They come to Sri Lanka and work as they want,” he said. 

Mr. Withanage said the true scale of the disaster was only being revealed now after a machine developed and operated by a Sri Lankan started collecting the pollutants including the nurdles found on the Sarukkuwa beach. 

“However, we understand that the machine operator has been told by a related institution to suspend operations. It appears that there is an attempt to understate the actual destruction caused by the disaster so that the compensation due to Sri Lanka could be reduced,” he said. 

Environmental experts are of the view that to calculate the damage caused to fishermen, turtles, dolphins and other marine life by the X-press Pearl incident, the number of dead animals found must be multiplied by five as only 10 percent of the dead animals washed up on the shore. Also, the algae that grow among the plastic materials deposited under the sea are eaten by marine animals at times along with the pollutant. This causes their deaths. Environmental scientists point out that plastic materials collected in this way take 500 to 1000 years to decompose.

It took only a short time for the X-press Pearl ship to sink. But the time that will take to address the negative effects and damage caused to this country will extend to the next hundreds of years.  The Rs. 1.3 billion received from the ship’s insurance company for the beach clean-up process pales into insignificance in comparison to the immeasurable damage caused to the maritime environment.

According to the MEPA chairperson, the company that owns the ship has entrusted the task of recovering the sunken ship to a Chinese company. It has already started the initial work. She also said that an interim report was being formulated to calculate the extent of the damage covering a period till November this year and obtain compensation from the ship owners. She said the claim had been sent to the relevant Australian law firm.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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