Cleaning up a catastrophe | Sunday Observer

Cleaning up a catastrophe

20 June, 2021
Pic by Sudath Malaweera
Pic by Sudath Malaweera

The environmental authorities, since May 26, had been spearheading a massive clean-up operation of the beaches due to the debris collected on the shores after the MV Xpress Pearl disaster.

The Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA), with the support of the Tri-Forces and other state entities, is engaged in an ongoing cleanup process at 39 selected locations.

MEPA carries out daily surveys and water sampling to measure pollution level as well. To date, over 1,000 tons of waste has been collected and stored in 44 containers, according to MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura.

Needless to say, the clean-up operation is commendable when the country is faced with a pandemic and during a time when lockdown restrictions are still in place.

Commendable service

During her recent visit to Pamunugama beach, marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos gave glowing accolades to the Tri-Forces for their efforts.

The plastic covered beach was regaining its original beauty after weeks of hard work and perseverance.

Giving an update on Oceanswell she said: “I’m in awe of all the hard work that the Tri-Forces have done. The beach was covered in nurdles but today things were so different. Massive thanks for their untiring efforts in the scorching sun in the middle of a pandemic.” She added that the vast majority of the nurdles have been taken out, describing it as an ‘incredible’ scene. Although there’s more to clean, the sandy beach is now visible without the foamy covering of the plastic.

Dr. de Vos added: “I also met the teams from International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) and Oil Spill Response, two international organisations that are here on the ground assessing the situation and helping come up with effective and efficient way to clean up the nurdles.”

Poisonous substances

Xpress Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers with 25 tonnes of nitric acid, other chemicals and cosmetics when it caught fire off the Sri Lankan coast.

Tiny plastic pellets from the ship washed up and spread along the western coastline and it is predicted to move towards the south and gather in nooks and corners of the entire coastline due to ocean currents.

As they move around, they take the toxic chemicals with them causing long term impacts.

Plastic pellets can change the temperature of the beach which could affect nesting species such as turtles, as the gender of the hatchings depend on the temperature, according to Dr. de Vos. On a positive note, MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura said the waste is being removed from the beaches rapidly, according to the safety guidelines and hazardous waste collection guidelines.

“We have a three-step strategy to address the situation. The first is accelerated and proper cleanup, the second, environmentally responsible disposal of waste and third, restoration,” she told the Sunday Observer.

Damage assessment

“The Tri-Forces contribute in the first stage for the rapid cleanup. The coordination is through the Disaster Management Centre.

To date, we have deployed 11,000 personnel, 1,000 per day from the Tri- Forces. The waste will be disposed in an environmentally responsible manner without leaving it for further environmental damage or vulnerability.

Now we are in the process of doing damage assessment. Once the comprehensive damage assessment is done, we will be planning the restoration accordingly. The assessment report identifies the areas and eco-systems we need to restore. This could be mangroves, coral reefs and particular species like the turtles. We need a specific specialised and structured plan for turtle restoration with the support of local and foreign experts,” the Chairperson said.

The emergence of satellite pictures last week that showed an oil-like substance surrounding the damaged ship, stirred concern whether the country would have to deal with a much larger environmental impact due to an oil slick. When asked about this, the MEPA Chairperson said that there was no cause for worry according to initial reports.

“We got a message of an oil spill a couple of days ago. Our concern was whether there is any bunker oil spill, which is heavy furnace oil used by vessels. This vessel contained nearly 300 metric tons of bunker oil. Our fear was whether this was leaking.

But we observed that instead of bunker oil, this is a very thin sheet surrounding the vessel and that there was no cause for concern. But we are continuously monitoring.

We have been collecting samples throughout this period from various locations since we got the message. We collect samples from close to the vessel, sending teams to the location on a daily basis.

Samples are sent for analytical reports to assess whether this is indeed bunker oil. But we can say with the appearance of it that this is not,” the Chairperson added.

Oil slick contingency

When asked about the preparedness of state authorities in the event of an oil slick, the MEPA Chairperson explained the strategy. “We have a mechanism called the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) which involves 15 institutions.

We know agencies which have oil spill prevention experts. In an event of an oil spill, it is a matter of activating the NOSCOP. We have kept all the equipment on standby specifically at two locations – Colombo Port and Dikowita Fisheries Harbour. We have also kept the teams on standby,” she said. While clean-up operations are ongoing, plans are afoot to address the final phase of the three-step strategy to restore the environment.

To address this, damage needs to be assessed and for that, five committees have been appointed under the Justice Ministry. The committees will assess the damage to the economic activities, fisheries, environment, tourism, legal matters etc.

The State Ministry of Urban Development, Coast Conservation, Waste Management and Community Cleanliness and the MEPA with the State Ministry of Urban Development and Coast Conservation are taking the lead in environmental damage assessment.

In addition, the government pays an allowance of Rs. 5,000 to sustain the livelihoods of fishermen affected by the disaster.

Expert committee

“We have formed a technical committee comprising many eminent professionals and institutions.

Prof. Ajith de Alwis from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the Moratuwa University and Prof. Prasanthi Gunawardena specialised in Environmental Economics are the co-Chairpersons.

We have a list of eminent marine ecology specialists and professors covering many areas including bio diversity, fisheries, ecology and oceanography who are assessing damage in their respective fields.

Apart from that, institutions such as the National Aquatic Resource, Research and Development Agency (NARA), National Building Research Organisation, University of Moratuwa, University of Colombo, University of Ruhuna, University of Kelaniya and the University of Jayewardenapura will conduct research on the marine impact of the disaster.

The Wildlife Conservation Department is assessing the damage to turtles and marine mammals. We are also assessing the damage to the air and coast conservation.

The marine life that was washed up on the Western Province coastline has been handed over to NARA and the Department of Wildlife to determine the cause of death.”

“Once assessments are final, we will carry out the mitigation and restoration with the support of foreign experts,” she added.

Despite the many challenges with an ongoing pandemic and bad weather, the authorities have carried out a commendable service to save the eco-system and marine environment that Sri Lanka is renowned for the world over.

As much as it is mainly the responsibility of the authorities, the public are equally responsible to adhere to the safety instructions to support the mammoth task still ahead.