- They would have looked at the ship and thought this is also another opportunity to get some money
- We have lost a whole eco system
- They just want to put all sorts of things into the operation and claim money from it
- Up to now the ship company nor anyone else has claimed ownership of the goods in the ship and I haven’t seen anybody claiming compensation. It is a big big mystery
- The worst scenario is that they used water to douse the flames
Environmental scientist and crusader for protecting the environment and a country free from garbage Dr. Ajantha Perera recently expressed strong statements against the destruction caused by the X-Press Pearl vessel and blunders made by the political and administration of the Sri Lanka Port and marine sector when dealing with the disaster. Shocked and dismayed by the irreparable damage caused to the Sri Lankan sea, marine lives and other natural resources like coral reefs, Dr. Perera complained that the entire operation including inviting the ship to Colombo harbour and attempting to douse the fire was done merely to obtain a few dollars as compensation. She was instrumental in preparing a Hazardous Waste Policy for Sri Lanka three decades ago in line with the Basel Convention in Switzerland which prevented transboundary movement of hazardous waste. An authority in her subject Dr. Perera strongly argued on how political decision making has led to the destruction of the country’s own nature and said it would have repercussions for next several generations.
Excerpts on an interview done with Dr. Perera:
Q In the backdrop of present environmental disaster relating to X-Press Pearl ship, can you explain about the Hazardous Waste Policy for Sri Lanka which you initiated nearly three decades ago with former Environmental Ministry Secretary Dr. D Nesiah?
This was in 1993. I have just returned from Germany with my Phd. Dr. Nesiah who was the Secretary to the Ministry of Environment used to work with me at that time. Environmental lawyer Mr. Lalanath de Silva, one of the first lawyers we had in that subject, also joined with us. So basically we really drafted this Hazardous Waste Policy for Sri Lanka. We looked at the Basel Convention which started in 1992 which was related to preventing transboundary movement of hazardous waste and we worked on that line and signed the agreement. We signed the agreement on the Hazardous waste agreement, a Basel Convention based policy to say that there won’t be any transboundary movement of hazardous waste or we won’t accept anything from outside. I can remember it was 1993/1994.
Q Why was something like the Hazardous Waste Policy for Sri Lanka needed at that time?
It was the very beginning of Basel Convention signing for Sri Lanka, so what we felt was that when we have a convention we need to have a policy to back it up because without a policy just having a convention is not going to help us. So that was the basis of that.
Before that we didn’t have any law with regard to this issue. This was the beginning of Hazardous Waste Policy for our country.
Q Once we signed this policy what are the areas we received protection and how was it going to be beneficial to us as an island nation?
There are various items like radio-active materials, pesticides, nuclear waste even the plastic and so on. All these are covered with that.
Q According to the information this particular ship contained materials which come under this hazardous category. Isn’t it?
Exactly. This is why I brought it up in my previous statement. We have already signed an agreement and then it’s very surprising for me that the Government had allowed it to come through because they know very well that we have signed an agreement. I was quoting President at an earlier statement because the President should have been familiar with these things because when he gives instructions to different ministries, he needs to also get them to look at the conventions that we have signed. It’s not only about Sri Lanka, we should have a good neighbourhood relationships with other countries. So whatever we have signed we need to standby that. So when the people in this ship requested permission to enter our waters the Minister, the Secretary to the Ministry and the chairperson of the Ports Authority should have had the details of the convention at their fingertips. You know the maritime laws and all those things. They should have said immediately that we cannot allow you through and discharge anything at our Colombo Port because we have signed agreements and we won’t allow this transboundary movement. And the ship says very clearly it had 81 containers of hazardous waste.
The Port Authority chairperson says that he does not know about it. How can he say he didn’t know about it? If a vessel coming into our waters and was in distress he should have asked as to what the ship contained. He should have asked that simple question.
The Port Authority chairperson says that he does not know about it. How can he say he didn’t know about it? If a vessel coming into our waters and was in distress he should have asked as to what the ship contained. He should have asked that simple question
Q Isn’t it mandatory for a ship to declare what it is carrying before it reaches the outer bound of the harbour?
Yes, you’re hundred thousands percent correct. They have to get permission based on what is on board. I am hundred thousands time sure about it. The law says there is a declaration form which they need to fax to our harbour and reveal that this is the ship and this is the details of ownership, this is where it is coming from and these are the items on board. Then they should be given permission to land. Just imagine if somebody brings a flight-full of explosive materials to our airport, they won’t be able to just come and land. They have to declare first and then be given permission to land.
Q One of the reasons cited by the authorities was that there were some containers to be disembarked at our Port. In that case do we still have the right to say not to enter our harbour?
There are many ways. The thing is this ship is a new one built in 2021. This was built in China. Basically when they are coming on the route they should have to declare as to what they are bringing and why they are bringing those things. Up to now no person or company has claimed that their goods were on board.
That’s very strange. By now there should have been people crying their eyes out and saying my goods are there and my goods were worth this much. So why do they want to come to a harbour just to say ‘hi’?
Q Do you have any idea whether any foreign company or Malaysian company has claimed the right of the goods in the ship?
I dont think so. I haven’t seen anybody claiming compensation. The other thing is it is a big mystery. It is a big big mystery. I don’t think our Sri Lanka would ever be able to solve this mystery. Anyway they are only interested in compensation that they are getting, but basically it is a big mystery because it is a brand new ship. Nobody is claiming any compensation from the company. Even if you go to the company website, they are also very quiet about what really happened. Rather than blaming others who are outside of our scope we must blame our people who invited them. Vasudewa Nanayakkara said exactly what the government is thinking of. Compensation, he said it.
Internationally we should have a good relationship with these people because we are a very much small island. Ship movements are very important for us and industries are important for us and the economy is very important for us. I totally blame ignorance and the irresponsibility of those in authority of our own waters and decision making. They would have looked at the ship and thought this is also another opportunity for us to get some money because they are desperate for money right now. They have ordered luxury vehicles and have already paid for it through the Central Bank and they are saying that they are not importing it but it is already paid for. I mean nobody is going to ship anything from outside for nothing. So they would have already paid for everything. You have to pay ahead of time.
Q So what do you think happened?
So they must have thought here is a chance a vessel can burn and it’s going to burn down and it’s containing all these things that don’t matter as long as it is little away from us. We can say it was in distress and this happened and nothing could have been done. And the worst scenario is that they used water to douse the flames.
It is very wrong to use water to dampen acid from flaring up. You can’t dampen it. And there was plastic in it. So obviously the plastic would be burning very hard and they should have used a very different material, a foaming material in order to dampen the whole thing. You can’t just use liquid stuff there. You have to extinguish it by buffering it. Our Navy and Marine Protection Authorities had a clue about what they should have done in this kind of situation. So why did they invite this vessel in? So all what they were thinking of was that every little effort their putting in would bring them money. So every time they send a ship they would have sent a bill. So the whole operation was a money earner. But the hard part for us is that it destroyed our own natural resources.
Q The repeated question asked by scientists and experts is why water was used to douse a fire that erupted involving Nitric acid. Did our authorities not know about this or they didn’t want to think about it?
I think it is both. I don’t think they had that in their minds too. They just want to put all sorts of things into the operation and claim money from it. So basically if they really wanted to douse the fire they would have asked for help from experts. They knew very well that the experts were a click of a finger away. Even if they had called some other country they would have told them exactly what to use. Nobody wants to keep a ship burning and the ship owners themselves should have really given instructions and should have been in Sri Lanka and at the site. And there is a person who is claiming to be the spokesman for the ship people from Sri Lanka. His responsibility was to make sure that all the responsible parties are there. But nothing of that sort was done. So I wonder whether they really burnt the ship itself. Because they were not even saying what the other containers are. If you take one, two and three, number one, did the Government of Sri Lanka ask from the container owners as to what is in those different containers? They never asked that question. The information that we are getting is not from the Government of Sri Lanka. We are getting it from the internet and everything else from what the ship owners have made as updates. So Sri Lankan government has not declared as to what was on board. Number two the Singaporean ship company has allowed the ship to enter Sri Lanka `knowing very well that Sri Lanka doesn’t have the technology to take care of it. Number three is that they invited European companies to come and help in fire extinguish only about three days afterwards.
Q What would be the environmental cost of this disaster?
The environmental cost is very huge. I am not talking in terms of what you discover right now because we value the environment. The whole consequences of the environment would be very vast. The area covered is extremely vast and the recovery period would be very long. So our concern is that it’s not about us because in another 10 to 15 years may be we will be gone, but even my children’s generation and even my grandchildren’s generation would have to go through many of these and wait to see a good environment being built. So we have lost a whole ecosystem. Animals would have just dissolved.
Q Yes we don’t see many animals are being washing ashore?
You won’t be able to see that. It just dissolves the flesh. This is due to a huge quantity of nitric acid. So only when people go diving may be after another good eight months that they would be able to observe all that.
Q As an environmental scientist what would be the other damage to the sea?
We have the coral reefs. They are all gone. This is why I keep saying that the government hasn’t a clue about what we have lost.
Q Would there be any international organisation to assess the damage?
Yes there are many and I hope that the shipping company would also be responsible enough and I am sure many people are going to request the shipping company to assess the environmental damage. Even though the Government of Sri Lanka might not be responsible the international organisations are on alert regarding this. So they will definitely assess it because we need to assess. However we cannot do that because it is a dangerous zone. It is a dead zone. But it will have to be done after about six months or so.
Q In last April a China-bound ship carrying uranium, radio active substance which had entered the Hambantota port was ordered to be removed. So it looks like this was not the first time that ships with hazardous substances and chemicals have entered our waters. Where did we go wrong?
It’s a good question. I think it’s the 20th Amendment. You know this is why we filed a court case against the 20th Amendment. We knew of the danger of the 20th Amendment; basically giving utmost power to a person that the country hardly knows about. I am very sorry to say that. This is the stupidity of the Sri Lankan society. But we should never give power to a single person and try to create a small god, with simple ‘g’ and not knowing what that person is capable of. So basically the 20th Amendment is something that allowed Sri Lanka to have a person who can take any decision, knowing the subject or without knowing the subject. So eventually we created that and this is where we went wrong.
Every president assuming power up to now has been saying that he or she wantd to abolish this executive presidency and they want to give up their powers, but this time President Gotabaya went ahead and built a bigger power for himself. Basically this is where we have gone wrong. You should go and ask him today whether he knows about Hazardous Waste Policy of the country or the Basel Convention and when it was signed. Instead of going to the village for ‘GAMA SAMAGA PILISANDARAK’ (Discussion with the Village) his job is to stay in the office and go through all the Conventions and all the agreements we have signed and make sure we are abide by them. He is supposed to be the leader and guide others.
Decisions are taken by someone just because he can give the orders. But others are keeping quiet because they are scared of losing their jobs. So we have to put an end to all these rubbish. Ours is a country a nation and we have a constitution so we can’t put our people in danger just because somebody has power. People have power. The Constitution gives power to the people. People have given it to the president to use. Nevertheless people have the power to take it back.
‘Garbage Queen- Crusader to end garbage problem in SL’
Dr. Perera at the site. Waste from the X-Press Pearl collected at Wellawatte beach mostly plastic pellets
Dr. Ajantha Perera, a daughter of a diplomat studied in India and England and she did her BSc in biochemistry and physiology at the University of Sheffield. One of the first recipient of a DAAD scholarship to do a master’s degree, she did her masters and a Phd in Environmental science at the University of Munich in Germany. She has done an Environmental Impact Assessment training in the University of Tennessee in the United States. She has been an assistant professor environmental science at Fiji National University since 2013. She is a member of the National Environment Council of Fiji and founding member of the Green Scouts Movement of Fiji.
Dubbed as the “Garbage Queen”, Dr. Perera has been campaigning to end to the mountainous garbage problem in Sri Lanka and in 2003 she founded the Natoinal Programme on Recycling of Solid Waste.
With her education and international expertise she introduced the recycling of garbage to Sri Lanka and it was she who found the Sinhala word for recycling-“Prathichakkreekaranaya”, connecting words “Prathi” meaning “again” and “chakkraya” meaning “cycle”.