Photo courtesy of EcoWatch

After 12 days, the ship MV X-Press Pearl finally sank about 9.5 nautical miles from the Colombo harbour. It has not sunk fully because it is touching a coral bed. The ship had been burning from May 20; an explosion six days later brought disaster in the form of small white plastic pellets spread around almost one third of the coastline from Galle to Kalpitiya. The pellets are low density polyethylene plastic nurdles.

The busy East-West shipping route passes six to ten nautical miles south of the country. More than 60,000 ships ply this route annually carrying two thirds of the world’s oil and half its container shipments. Although there are thousands of ships passing by Sri Lanka every day, major ship accidents are rare. However, the fire on X-Press Pearl is the second accident during the last 10 months.

The Singapore-flagged cargo vessel was carrying a consignment of hazardous chemicals including nitric acid, ethanol, lead ingots, dust urea, frilled urea, high density and low density polyethylene (46 containers), epoxy resins (349 containers), sodium methoxide, caustic soda (42 containers), aluminum processing byproducts, raw materials for cosmetics, food items and general cargo from Qatar and Gujarat to the Colombo port. The ship also had 300 tonnes of bunker oil. With the sinking of the ship, the release of the chemicals is a serious risk to the ocean and the coastal ecosystem.

Nitric acid will damage the corals and ocean life as it is a highly corrosive chemical. It is a very dangerous acid.

The burned plastics are polluting the air. But spreading of plastic pellets is the most disastrous impact we have seen so far. While cleaning efforts could remove half the plastic beads, rest will stay mixed with sand and in the coral beds, continuing to kill ocean life for many more years. Heavy metals in the environmentally harmful substances and possible oil spill will bring disaster if we don’t act fast. According to the list of goods, the container had many flammable liquids and solids such as sulfur. When sulfur is burned, poisonous gases are produced including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. Although there may have been some acid rain, that possibility is over now.

Sodium methoxide reacts with water to form sodium hydroxide, a corrosive material, and methyl alcohol, a flammable liquid. The heat from this reaction may be sufficient to ignite surrounding combustible material or the sodium methylate itself if the water is present even in small amounts. Therefore, using water for fire control was a wrong procedure.

Nitric acid reacts with water releasing large amount of heat, which was the cause of the accident as revealed in media reports. We have no report on how the ship controlled the fire at the initial stages. Vinyl acetate is a clear, colorless liquid. It is very flammable and may be ignited by heat, sparks or flames. It is a carcinogen and  flammable.

The ship caught fire 9.5 nautical miles from the coast. Sri Lankan authorities who tried to manage the fire failed and there was an explosion on the morning of May 26. The fire was only controlled after Indian emergency support joined the mission on May 27. The Sri Lankan effort failed due to the lack of an emergency response system, lack of safety procedures, relevant expertise and lack of tools and equipment. Failure of other countries to assist Sri Lanka seems part of the negligence. There is a clear violation of the International Convention for Prevention Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention), which Sri Lanka ratified in 1997, that seeks to handle harmful substances.

The extent of environmental damage has not been assessed yet; the National Aquaculture Research Agency (NARA) and Marine Environment Protection Authority will conduct an assessment on the quality of sea water and the diversity of planktons.

Thousands of fishermen have lost their livelihoods after the government banned fishing from Panadura to Negombo. Fishermen who are allowed to go fishing can’t sell their catch because people are afraid to eat seafood due to chemical poisoning.

The areas under direct impact are the western coast harbours from where there is offshore fishing, near shore fishing and lagoon fishing. The Dikowita Fishing Harbour is located less that 10 km from Colombo. About 349 boats, 272 rafters and 33 multi day boats ply out of this harbor. Over 6,000 fishermen live along Uswetakeiyava to Negombo coastal stretch. About 2,000 boats goes for fishing in the ocean. The Negombo lagoon has 3,000 fishermen and 1,300 boats and fishing crafts.

Dead fish have washed up on the shores with plastic pellets trapped in their gills. They will continue to ingest the pellets, which will be accumulated in their digestive systems, posing a health hazard for fish consumers. Even though the pellets are being collected, a considerable part will be left behind; it is impossible to do a total beach cleanup. Colombo and Gampaha are two most populated districts in Sri Lanka where many of the people, including tourists, use the beach for recreational purposes. The accident has caused significant damage to the visual quality of the beach that will last for years, affecting the tourism industry.

Although the impact on biodiversity is yet to be assessed, there are several reefs located in the area and the fauna and flora associated with the reefs will be seriously affected. Turtles, moray eel and sting ray have washed up on beaches. The coastal belt consists of several important and sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs, seagrass beds, estuaries, lagoons and beaches where turtles frequently nest. The ocean around Sri Lanka is a rich habitat for marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, so the impact of an oil spill will be disastrous. When analyzing the environmental hazardous chemicals and other chemicals found on the ship, the air pollution during the fire would have been very toxic and the water contamination would also be very toxic.

Leaking containers were found about 1,000 miles away from Sri Lanka. According to the media, Port Hazira on the west coast of India and Hamad in Qatar had denied captain’s request to offload containers with leaking nitric acid. If the ship’s authorities had acted more responsibly, the disaster could have been avoided. They are also responsible under the precautionary principle in international environmental law and they should have taken measures to prevent this happening or to reduce the harm. The country is paying a high price in terms of environmental, social and economic costs.

Under the polluter pays principle, polluters and responsible parties are required to pay for the damage they cause to the territorial sea and its ocean life, water quality, air quality and the other interests such as damage to livelihoods and fisheries in addition to the cost of emergency response, clean ups and compensation to the victims of pollution. However, our experience is not very positive.

In September 2020 a crude oil carrier chartered by Indian Oil Corporation, the New Diamond, set off from Kuwait to the Paradip Port in India with 270,000 metric tons of crude oil that started spilling into the ocean on Sri Lanka’s east coast following a fire on board. Sri Lankan authorities have filed charges against the captain and a claim for $2.4 million from the ship’s owners for the firefighting and pollution prevention efforts. A team of experts, tasked to assess the comprehensive environmental damage, came up with a compensation of around $17.38 million but this has not yet been paid.

Sri Lanka has not signed the Hazardous and Noxious Substances Convention. Had Sri Lanka become a signatory to the convention and incorporated it into the domestic law, the country would have been in a better position to claim compensation for the damage done.

We need to remedy the environmental damage to the rich ecosystem associated with ocean environment including coral reefs, mangroves and lagoons that will be there for years to come. We need justice for the fishing community who have been affected due to the contamination of sea areas and loss of fishing grounds.  We need justice for the  public who use the beach for recreation purposes. The Centre for Environmental Justice  will file a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court for this purpose.

More importantly, we need to learn from the disaster and correct our emergency response mechanism. There should be a dedicated unit with facilities at the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) including a ship facilities to engage in ocean incidents. It is important to sign and ratify necessary international conventions before next disaster. Scientific decision making should be respected and scientific bodies such as National Aquatic resources Agency (NARA) should be given necessary infrastructure and facilities including a research ship to study our ocean and bring the benefits of science to prevent future disasters.

The author is the Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice