Photo courtesy of Hemantha Withanage

The X-Press Pearl ship catastrophe is the most significant ship accident that has happened in the Indian ocean and is the worst maritime disaster in the history of Sri Lanka. This is because it is a toxic ship with 81 containers of environmentally hazardous substances with over 700 containers of chemically active substances. The impact assessment has revealed that between 8,000 and 13,000 metric tons of air pollutants were released into the atmosphere from the ship’s blaze.

Thirty nine containers of oil (lubricant oil, gear oil and brake oil), one container of batteries, one container of nitric acid and 349 containers of epoxy resin were on board. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of toxic epoxy was also aboard. According the UN Environment Programme, “The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis – one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.” The Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) has mobilised the navy, airforce and the coast guard and they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. This is around 40% of the plastic nurdles transported on the ship. According to the cargo list, 46,980 25 kg bags and unknown quantities of 20 containers of low density and high density polyethylene nurdles were on the ship. Plastic nurdles were found from the Vankalai Ramsar Wetland to the Rekawa turtle sanctuary, which is almost 700 km of the coastal belt.

The modelling diagrams showed that large volumes of plastic nurdles wash away from Sri Lanka towards Bay of Bengal. Although they are not visible in large quantities, there are layers of plastic nurdles along the coastal line that are impossible to remove without having a detailed cleaning process using special equipment. The Pearl Protectors, a local environmental group, has initiated a coordinated effort to mitigate the pollution by collecting nurdles on the shoreline using specific apparatus.

There is no detailed investigation of the 1,486 containers sunk in the waters because of rough weather. The locations of the containers are unknown. One container was found on the southern coast. Other than the containers inside the vessel, containers stored on the deck may have spread around a vast area, so it is not possible to gauge the actual effect.

Last week, the Attorney General reported to the courts that 417 turtles, 48 dolphins and 8 whales have been found on beaches. According to marine scientists, only 10 to 15% of dead animals wash ashore during such incidents. It is unfortunate that so-called scientists contend that this ship’s pollution is not responsible for the deaths since the Government Analyst and other bodies have failed to release valid autopsy reports because they do not have competent experts to run the testing equipment.

Debris has been found along almost 700 km of coast and dead marine species have washed ashore from Mannar to Trincomalee, almost two thirds of the coastal belt. Myanmar media reported some dead turtles were found on its beaches.

Leaking oil

During attempts to tow the X-Press Pearl to deeper waters, the vessel sank on June 2 about 9.5 nautical miles from the Colombo Port; only the accommodation block is visible above the water line. On June 8, oil sheen was observed emanating from the wreck. Since then, there has been a continuous oil leak and although the MEPA had requested the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) and Resolve Marine to discuss a plan to remove oil from the wreck and the current oil spill response actions, no action had been taken to remove oil from the vessel or from the environment. The offshore oil spill response plan was reviewed by ITOPF and later accepted by the MEPA and the delegation from the United Nations who were at the site.

Reports from monitoring and surveillance mechanisms in place and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have reported the presence of a silver, rainbow and metallic sheen, with occasional observation of small quantities of black oil.

The oil slick from the wreck appears to be dissipating in the environment but there was some oil found on the shoreline too.

According to the Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code, a significant amount of oil has contaminated the sea water. Despite very small, occasional globules of black oil being seen at the wreck site, the appearance of most of the slick is silver/grey, rainbow and metallic.

Insurance claim

Government bodies are struggling with calculating the damage. The initial estimate of $40 million has been rejected by the insurer. The ship is under the P&I Club, a London marine mutual insurer that provides specialist marine liability cover known as Protection and Indemnity, or P&I, to the X-Press Pearl. The Ministry of Justice recently said that the P&I Club would pay approximately Rs.720 million (around $3.6 million) as part of the settlement of the first interim claim. Sri Lankan authorities filed a claim with the operator of the ship seeking $40 million to compensate for the environmental damage caused by the ship’s sinking. The ministry plans to seek compensation for costs incurred from firefighting efforts. But it was reported that insurer needs further clarification related the claim and refused to pay for the harm to ocean life including turtle and dolphin deaths because no autopsy reports have been published yet.

Fishermen are losing Rs.80 million worth income every day while Rs.300 million worth fish exports have been cancelled.  Almost 12,000 fishermen in the western and north western coast have lost their income for two months for which the government has discussed paying some compensation.

There are three cases filed so far for the environment and the fishermen. The MEPA has also filed criminal charges against the crew members and the ship operator. The coordination is under the Minister of Justice. Yet there is a lethargy in government action. Unfortunately, science doesn’t play a significant role in establishing the case. Coordination among the agencies is not adequate and they are fully dependent on the ITOPF, OSRL and Resolve Marine.

The disaster that began on the 20 May 2021 is now becoming a silent killer. Although much of the pollution is not visible, each nurdle and each oil droplet is an environmental risk. The toxic shipwreck is silently polluting the coral beds and ocean life under water. It has affected the tourism, fish exportation and peace in fishing families.

The writer is Senior Advisor, Centre For Environmental Justice