The ‘MV X-press Pearl’, a Singaporean registered vessel, was around nine nautical miles outside the port –direction Negombo- when dark clouds of smoke were seen to be billowing from it.
According to reports, one of the containers onboard was leaking nitric acid at its previous stops in Hamad Port in Qatar and Hazira Port in India. CNN reported the company claimed they had not been permitted to enter as “the advice given was there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking unit.”
The ship was carrying 1486 containers of which 81 were dangerous goods, including 25 metric tons of nitric acid according to X-press Feeders, the ship’s operator. In addition, it was also carrying an unspecified quantity of ethanol, lubricants and 350 tons of bunker oil.
The fire, which raged for almost two weeks, prompted a large-scale clean-up operation along our western coast, as millions of plastic micro pellets blanketed the beaches between Colombo and Negombo.
Efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian coast guard boats to douse the flames, proved unsuccessful. Perhaps a mistake of the firefighters –using water to douse what was a chemical fire- contributed to their inability to douse the flames.
Four days ago the ship sank while naval authorities and Indian coast guard vessels were trying to tow it to deep sea. The attempt was stopped when salvagers realized the ship’s hull had hit the seabed (approx. 20 - 22 km deep). It was feared the vessel could break up and result in a major oil spill.
From May 20, continuing efforts were in progress to put out the fire, in an effort to prevent, what the Marine Environment Prevention Authority (MEPA) has described as the worst ecological disaster this country had ever faced.
MEPA warned that beaches from Negombo to Dikowita could be affected from millions of plastic micro pellets that already covered beaches between Negombo and Colombo could spread to Dikowita. Presently bulldozers are being used to clear the pollution on the beach.
Unfortunately, latest media releases reveal the plastic pollutants have reached shores in areas as distant as Matara. There is now an additional danger that the fuel tanks of the stricken vessel containing thousands of tons of thick bunker oil could break up under pressure of the sea water and discharge its deadly cargo into the ocean. Authorities fear a bigger disaster, if the oil leaks enter lagoons, rivers and canals, which could destroy marine life and algae on which all forms of marine life depend.
Damage to ocean life is quite visible with dead fish, turtles and other marine life forms being washed ashore, some with eyes and parts of their bodies dissolved. It is being speculated that this is due to the effect of spill on ocean life.
Experts are unable to forecast how long the chemicals could adversely affect marine life. In the event of the ship’s breakup, an oil-spill of massive proportions, which will be doubly disastrous.
Fisher folk on the west coast have been asked not to venture out to sea. This means they have lost their means of sustenance for a long period of time. The ‘Sunday Times’ reported around 5,600 day-fishing vessels would be affected.
The polluted beaches and damage to the coral reefs along the coast will take a considerable time to rehabilitate, resulting in serious damage to the tourist trade already badly hit by the corona virus.
Which raises the question as to who was stupid enough to permit the ‘Express Pearl’ enter Sri Lankan waters even though the ship was refused permission to enter two other Indian ports?
It is being speculated that, someone, somewhere, believed we could handle the problem of the Express Pearl, as we did following the incident when the container vessel MT Blue Diamond caught fire off the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka in September last year and claim compensation. Whoever it was forgot the consequences of an oil spill from the ship.
Estimated damage from the oil slick of MT Blue Diamond was only recently estimated and handed over to the Attorney General to be handed over to the local insurer of the shipping company. The insurer has claimed it needs time to study the report!
In the meantime, who will take responsibility of the thousands of fisher families who are now facing destitution? How will the many thousands of families dependent on the tourist trade keep the wolf from the door? What happens to the education of children of affected families? Even worse can we repair the damage to the marine environment?
Will anyone take responsibility for this man-made disaster, we think not.