Image courtesy : SLAF
The three-month old vessel is owned by the world’s largest independent common carrier
Navy, SLAF operating with limited capabilities
No oil spills observed so far
Legal process initiated, data collection intensified
Sri Lankan waters have been cast with an evil spell. As one of the most frequently used maritime routes, the Indian Ocean is likely to witness more maritime emergencies in time to come. Even though Sri Lankan authorities succeeded in dousing the fire onboard Panamanian oil tanker MT New Diamond, the situation doesn’t seem to be satisfactory in the case of Singapore-bound X-Press Pearl. But one may also wonder how a newly built vessel owned by the world’s largest independent common carrier caught fire. However, as authorities continue in firefighting efforts, marine experts anticipate that it would take some time for the marine environment to recover from the impending damage.
People seen at surrounding seashores despite warnings from authorities
Another maritime disaster
A fire was reported on board X-Press Pearl (IMO: 9875343), a container ship built in 2021 carrying the Singapore flag while on its way to Singapore via Colombo on May 20. The three-month old, 2700 teu feeder ship was carrying 1486 containers including 25 tones of nitric acid, plastics and chemicals used for cosmetics. Although authorities claimed that the fire was brought under control on May 21, four days later the situation deteriorated with heavy sea and wind currents resulting in an explosion. While 25 members of the crew (that included Philippines, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals) were rescued, two of them have been hospitalized. Experts from Netherlands and Belgium are surveying the ship while two vessels and an aircraft were sent from neighboring India. As at May 26, 2021 the fire continues to rage and a split has been observed following the explosion. Burnt debris continue to accumulate on surrounding seashores and toxic fumes are likely to affect people in the vicinities. Following the developments fisherfolk have been advised to keep away from the sea, further affecting their livelihoods during these challenging times.
Statement by X-Press Feeders
The distressed vessel is owned by X-Press Feeders, known to be the largest independent common carrier in the world. A situation update on its website states that that all crew members were safely evacuated from the vessel, after the fire incident on board the vessel.
“Despite the best efforts of salvors and firefighting tugs, the blaze had spread overnight, fanned by strong winds. With the crew’s safety of utmost importance to X-Press Feeders, the decision was made to evacuate them.
“X-Press Feeders will continue to work closely with the Sri Lankan authorities and emergency services with assistance from its appointed salvors to extinguish the blaze and to save the vessel and its cargo. Specialised firefighting equipment which arrived from Europe last night will join the salvaging operations.
“The families of all the crew members have been advised of the safe evacuation of the respective crew, and we will continue to update them of any further developments. X-Press Feeders will continue to liaise with customers with regard to their containers on board the vessel.
Further information will be provided as soon as it becomes available.”
We believe that a chemical leak is the reason for the fire and it aggravated when it reached general cargo. Apart from ‘dangerous cargo’ there may have been clothes, packeted food coming under General cargo. When there are maritime emergencies we stick to the National Contingency Plan
- Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva
No good news regarding situation : Navy Spokesman
On May 20, 2021, at the onset of the incident, Sri Lanka Navy dispatched two Offshore Patrol Vessels, Sri Lanka Naval Ships (SLNS) Sagara and Sindurala and a Fast Attack Craft to the scene of fire. As the fire continued to rage across the ship, the Sri Lanka Air Force deployed a BELL 212 Helicopter amidst prevailing weather conditions to assist with the fire-fighting mission. As means of controlling the fire, 425 kilograms of dry chemical powder were released onto the ship. “We don’t have much good news about the situation,” opined Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva.
“The two vessels sent from India are used in controlling marine pollution. So they cannot assist much in this effort. Even though we had a plan to tow the vessel around 50 nautical miles away from its current location, the raging fire and the strong winds have been an obstacle. If we move it against the winds, the relative wind will aggravate the fire. To tow it a crew member should maneuver the vessel, but with the extreme heat nobody could go near the vessel. So we decided to leave it in the current location and continue to control the fire.
“We believe that a chemical leak is the reason for the fire and it aggravated when it reached general cargo. Apart from ‘dangerous cargo’ there may have been clothes, packeted food coming under General cargo. When there are maritime emergencies we stick to the National Contingency Plan along with various stakeholders including the Coast Guard, Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA), Sri Lanka Ports Authority etc. Initially the Navy visits the location and do first aid protection and during the second stage the authorities would instruct if the ship needs to be towed away or not. There are specialized companies known as salvors for this purpose. But in this case the situation went out of control as we have limited capabilities. Our maritime industry isn’t advanced enough to be equipped with marine pollution control ships. So we had to seek assistance from India. Usually there’s an international response in the case of a maritime emergency.”
Now we have intensified data collection and based on that evidence we can claim the damage, insurance and other losses. Fishermen too have been advised to refrain from doing any fishing activities and toxic fumes emanated from the ship may put people in surrounding areas at risk. However the loss will be calculated taking all these matters into consideration
- MEPA General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara
Damage assessment underway
“All wash-off including burnt plastics and chemicals are accumulating in the surrounding seashores,” MEPA General Manager Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara explained. “So far we haven’t observed any oil spills. There’s a greasy look in its surrounds resulting from burnt plastics.”
Responding to a query on marine pollution Dr. Kumara said that it would take time to study the impacts.
“However we have appointed a team of chemists and teams from National Aquatic Resources Authority (NARA), National Building Research Organisation (NBRO), Universities of Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenapura are in the process of collecting data. It will take several months to complete the damage assessment but we initiated the legal process from day one. Now we have intensified data collection and based on that evidence we can claim the damage, insurance and other losses. Fishermen too have been advised to refrain from doing any fishing activities and toxic fumes emanated from the ship may put people in surrounding areas at risk. However the loss will be calculated taking all these matters into consideration.” said Dr. Kumara.
When asked about the recovery process Dr. Kumara said it would take time for the shores to be clean. “We will do a cleanup. However there are no coral reefs in the vicinity and the waters are murky. But we are in the process analysis how to prevent oil from escaping into the lagoon, river estuaries, preventing any impacts on mangroves in the area through a Sensitive Ecosystem Mapping system.” he said.
If the lagoon gets polluted with these chemicals and debris, it will affect the livelihoods of around 3500 families who thrive on the fisheries industry. We feel that the government is anticipating on claiming a huge damage for this incident but a fraction of that should be given as compensation to the fishermen
- Aruna Roshantha, President – All Ceylon Fisheries Union (ACFU)
Be fair when giving compensation, ACFU requests Govt.
The shoreline from Wattala to Negombo has become densely polluted. Various debris including vessel wreckage, floating container parts, burnt cargo and chemicals along with oil and ash have covered surrounding areas. The fisheries industry was already affected by the pandemic and with this incident it would further challenge their livelihoods.
“Burnt debris are accumulating along the coastal stretch from Morawala to Pitipana in Negombo,” observed Aruna Roshantha, President – All Ceylon Fisheries Union (ACFU). “These areas are inhabited by fisheries communities and by inhaling toxic fumes their lives would be at risk. The government has advised fishermen to refrain from going anywhere near the sea. But the government hasn’t been clear about the impacts on the marine environment. In this situation we won’t be able to sell fish and earn an income to feed our families.” said Roshantha.
He further said that the Negombo lagoon provides a safe environment for fishing activities. “If the lagoon gets polluted with these chemicals and debris, it will affect the livelihoods of around 3500 families who thrive on the fisheries industry. We feel that the government is anticipating on claiming a huge damage for this incident but a fraction of that should be given as compensation to the fishermen. The fisheries sector has already been affected due to the pandemic and this incident will further affect our livelihoods. So we request the government to be fair in the compensation process.” he added.