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X-Press Pearl inferno : Environmentalists raise concerns on damage assessment process

15 October 2021 12:29 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Women from the local community in Sarakkuwa cleaning nurdles sans protective gear or safety equipment. Pix by Kithsiri De Mel 

 

In September, the International Tank Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), a non-government body registered in the UK which is funded by ship owners has been invited by authorities to help in cleaning nurdles and assessing the damage. Environmentalists claim that this Company doesn’t have the required expertise to deal with nurdle spills

The X-Press Pearl is currently at a unique marine area and we believe that there are three different types of oil in the ship posing a risk of oil spills in the near future

 

Five months after the X-press Pearl container vessel caught fire, Sri Lankan authorities are still taking snail-paced efforts to assess the damage. Even though environmentalists and several marine experts claimed that it appeared to be an irreversible disaster, the government still hasn’t given a clear picture on the matter. It has been estimated that approximately 85 billion high density and low density plastic nurdles spilled from ship. At the onset of the incident, the three armed forces personnel were deployed to manually clear the beaches. Subsequently a local inventor took the initiative to clean the Sarakkuwa Beach which was identified as a red zone. But today, this machine has ceased operations on the request of authorities and on any given day, around 100 women from the local community could be seen at the Sarakkuwa Beach, manually cleaning nurdles, 
sans protective gear or safety measures.  

P & I Insurance and damage assessment 

The purpose of Protection and Indemnity (P&I) insurance is to shield the assured from the risk of the liabilities arising from their maritime activities, to damage or loss which the assured has caused to others. Modern P&I, available to ship-owners and charterers alike, provides coverage for a wide range of liabilities and losses, for example loss of life or injury to passengers or crew, wreck removal, damage to or loss of other property, including pollution. In September, the International Tank Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), a non-government body registered in the UK which is funded by ship owners has been invited by authorities to help in cleaning nurdles and assessing the damage. Environmentalists claim that this Company doesn’t have the required expertise to deal with nurdle spills. 

Local inventor to the rescue 

 

Chinthaka Waragoda 

 

"I saw the X-press Pearl incident on television and that there were plastic nurdles piled up on the shore, therefore I thought I should develop a machine to clean the nurdles. So I brought it here and showed it to the international company involved in the cleaning process and they too commended the effort”: 
Chinthaka Waragoda
- CRS Holdings"

 

It is in this backdrop that a local company took the initiative to develop a new machine to collect nurdles and other waste materials. Chinthaka Waragoda of CRS Holdings, a startup company involved in setting up novel innovations was able to setup this machine within 14 days. 


Even though there were two machines, the authorities were interested in just one machine. But Waragoda claims that when they started revealing details about the damage, the authorities have requested them to halt operations.  Hence, after a 60-day operation, the machine ceased functioning on October 9. 


“I saw the X-Press Pearl incident on television and that there were plastic nurdles piled up on the shore,” recalled Waragoda during a protest held at Sarakkuwa Beach, one of the areas that was badly affected by the incident. “Therefore I thought I should develop a machine to clean the nurdles. So I brought it here and showed it to the international company involved in the cleaning process and they too commended the effort. The Sarakkuwa Beach is a habitat for crabs and other species but today we can’t find as many crabs as they used to be. This machine is developed to collect nurdles and chemicals. It is able to collect from the tiniest of particles to chemical sludge. It has been functioning for 60 days and around 10 tons of nurdles, 110,000 liters of sludge have been removed so far.  It can collect between 80-100 metre cubes within eight hours. However it is difficult to remove 0.5-1.5mm particles but using an advanced technology we have been able to remove them as well. We clean the sand before releasing it to the ocean. If these materials re-enter the ocean it will have a detrimental impact on the marine ecosystem,” he added. 

Will the govt. claim maximum compensation? 

 

Hemantha Withanage

 

“When the Mauritius oil spill took place, they claimed US$ 10 billion as compensation from Japan. Even though the GoSL claimed US$ 40 million from X-press Pearl we have only received US$ 3.6 million”: 
Hemantha Withanage
- Centre for Environmental Justice"

 

Several environmentalists also ex-pressed concerns on how the government has been silent on the whole damage assessment process. They further claim that the interference of P&I Insurance Club will affect the assessment process thereby convincing the state to accept a minimal amount as compensation. “The Sri Lankan government is trying to get this compensation from a mutual agreement,” opined Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director at Centre for Environmental Justice. “When the Mauritius oil spill took place, they claimed US$ 10 billion as compensation from Japan. Even though the GoSL claimed US$ 40 million from X-Press Pearl we have only received US$ 3.6 million. So far fishermen have received only Rs. 15,000 and those who own bigger boats have received Rs. 60,000. But the fishermen have experienced damages costing Rs. 150,000 or more. Where does this money go? Why are there lower estimates? We doubt whether the government would be able submit a proper damage assessment report by the end of November. All relevant authorities should inform the public on the current progress of these assessments. There are health concerns the public could come across, nobody knows how many turtles or marine animals died as a result of the incident. Therefore we urge authorities to claim the maximum amount as compensation when assessing the damage.”

Mysterious deaths of marine animals  

"We assume that around 10,000 turtles have actually been impacted although we estimate that only around 1000 carcasses were washed ashore. More than 100 dolphins and marine animals living in the deep sea too have died mysteriously - Nayanaka Ranwella"

It has been estimated that over 1000 Turtle carcasses have washed ashore following the X-Press Pearl incident. But authorities failed to conclude the cause of death of these marine animals as they claimed that the carcasses were rotten by the time they were taken for investigations. Amongst the dead animals were rare aquatic animals and some of them could only be found in the deep sea. 


“This is perhaps the biggest maritime disaster in recent history,” opined environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella. Therefore we assume that around 10,000 turtles have actually been impacted although we estimate that only around 1000 carcasses were washed ashore. More than 100 dolphins and marine animals living in the deep sea too have died mysteriously. We believe that certain chemical reactions are still taking place. But unfortunately the authorities and the government are trying to hide certain facts and mislead the public. When we met with the Committee appointed to assess compensation it appeared that they too don’t have a proper mechanism in place. As a result the fisheries community, people living in coastal areas, marine environment and the general public who consume fish have been largely affected. We also don’t have a clue as to how long it would take to recover from this damage. During the MT New Diamond incident we could have claimed US$ 530 million as compensation but we claimed only US$ 18 million. But so far we have only received US$ 2 million. This shows that there are many underhand deals preventing the state from receiving the full compensation. There are certain coastal areas in Africa that are being used by other countries to deliberately sink ships. Perhaps Sri Lanka is becoming one of those states. The X-Press Pearl is currently at a unique marine area and we believe that there are three different types of oil in the ship posing a risk of oil spills in the 
near future.” 

Impact on coral reefs 

"With the X-press Pearl inferno, these corals are now deprived of that oxygen as well. So far the government hasn’t taken any action to assess the damage caused to the ocean bed - Jagath Preethi Kumara"

Even though the damage was seen from the periphery, those working closely with marine ecosystems claim that the unseen damage is greater. “Sri Lanka’s coral reefs are diminishing by the day and it was almost like they were being given oxygen for survival,” opined Jagath Preethi Kumara, Convener of the Divers’ Centre affiliated to the All Ceylon Public Fisheries Confederation. 


“But with the X-Press Pearl inferno these corals are now deprived of that oxygen as well. So far the government hasn’t taken any action to assess the damage caused to the ocean bed. Carcasses of turtles, dolphins and other marine animal washed ashore immediately after the incident. But turtles who feed on these nurdles have a risk of developing cancer. 


Therefore more carcasses will be washed ashore in future. The government hasn’t calculated the total number of animals affected by the incident. The damage claimed should be used to restore the coral reef in Sri Lanka apart from compensating the fisheries community,” he suggested.

MEPA responds 

"We identified the Sarakkuwa Beach as a red zone as it was highly impacted from the incident and asked this company to do the cleaning work here”: Dharshani Lahandapura"

 

The environmentalists and CRS Holdings allege that the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) has requested them to halt cleaning operations at the Sarakkuwa Beach. However, MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura has another side to the story. “When we got to know about the machine, we requested this company to make a bigger machine so that we could deploy it. So after a series of discussions we submitted the proposal to ITOPF, a foreign party in Sri Lanka for verification purposes. After we signed the agreement with the P&I club we decided to pay the local company US$ 3750 per day, which is a considerable amount. But they demanded for more. We then said that we would provide him with the other machinery.”


However, Lahandapura said that there were two concerns during collecting nurdles. One was to collect nurdles prior to the end of the monsoon period and the other was to ensure that the coastal ecosystem wasn’t disturbed when collecting nurdles. “Thereafter we carried out a joint inspection in his presence. The parish priest, MEPA, Coastal Conservation Department, the coastal community and several environmental groups also joined on this inspection visit. We then identified the Sarakkuwa Beach as a red zone as it was highly impacted from the incident and asked this company to do the cleaning work here. The other areas were less affected.”
But Lahandapura claims that Waragoda and CRS Holdings are making baseless allegations. “If they have any concern they should firstly speak to us. We should be working together rather than competing with each other as both parties are ultimately working for the country.”


Responding to a query on whether ITOPF is interfering with the compensation process, she said that when a shipwreck or oil spill happens anywhere in the world it is the ITOPF that appears on behalf of the ship. “They say they are independent but they also need to verify P&I insurance claims. So we have no option but to work with them. We will agree on certain things and if we come across certain areas that we don’t agree, we will discuss it with them. We have a strategic plan in place to clean all beaches.”


She further said that US$ 40 million was requested during the first interim claim and Sri Lanka has so far received US$ 3.6 million. “We are in the process of finalizing the second interim claim and the environmental damage assessment will be ready in a month’s time.”

Several attempts to contact State Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekara to inquire about how the government would ensure the safety of the local community deployed to clean the Sarakkuwa Beach, proved futile.

Machine setup by CRS holdings to segregate nurdles and chemical sludge

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