Lessons from the X-Press Pearl disaster | Sunday Observer

Lessons from the X-Press Pearl disaster

5 June, 2021

Sri Lanka had to face two maritime disasters within just one year. In the first incident, the very large crude carrier MT New Diamond caught fire on September 3, 2020 off the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka. A major maritime disaster was averted thanks to timely action by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) which managed to extinguish the fire by September 11.

There was an oil spill, though not a major one and the after effects were managed successfully by the above entities as well as the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA). On this occasion, legal action was taken against the Captain and operators of the vessel and Sri Lanka received due compensation for the firefighting effort as well as the oil slick.

But the second (and current) incident is far more serious. In this incident, the Singapore registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl (owned by X-Press Feeders) reported a fire on board on May 21 while it was 9.5 Nautical Miles from the Coast, at the entry point to Colombo Port. The blaze took on a dangerous dimension due to the nature of its cargo – the 1,486 containers aboard included 25 tons of volatile Nitric Acid and various combustible chemicals. The vessel also had a fuel reserve (for its own use) of 350 MT.

This was a hazardous combination to begin with and the firefighting units from SLAF, SLN and ICG had a tough task on their hands. This was compounded by an explosion on board the vessel on May 25, which impeded attempts to douse the fire.

They eventually managed to extinguish the fire (indeed, a Dutch salvage team was able to board and inspect the vessel afterwards) but the runaway blaze had damaged its superstructure to such an extent that the vessel began listing. Still, a towing vessel from the Dutch salvage firm SMIT began to tow the damaged box ship away to the deep sea.

The main concern at this time is preventing the leakage of the vessel’s fuel, which would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions for this country.

The seepage of Nitric Acid and other chemicals to the sea from the burning ship has already proved to be a major disaster in itself – as all marine life in a vast sea area has been affected, which in turn has virtually crippled the fishing industry in the Western and Southern coastal belt.

The damage caused to marine life, even without a leakage of oil, is likely to persist for several decades to come.

This is a horrendous situation from an environmental and ecological perspective. Some environmentalists say the restoration of this important ecosystem encompassing corals and other marine life could take a century.

Indeed, this year’s theme of the World Environment Day which fell yesterday (June 5) is “Ecosystem Restoration” with a focus on the recovery of ecosystems from man-made disasters such as this one.

The X-Press Pearl disaster also shows how livelihoods in coastal areas can be affected by maritime mishaps. This also brings us to theme for World Oceans Day 2021 (June 8) which is “Ocean: Life and Livelihoods”.

Indeed, the ship tragedy has already affected thousands of fisher folk, fish sellers and of course, consumers who depend on fish as a primary source of protein.

From a global view, the ocean is the home to most of the earth’s biodiversity and provides a main source of protein for billions of people. The ocean is key to the global economy, with an estimated 40 million people being employed by ocean-based industries by 2030.

With the extinction of 90 percent of big fish populations and 50 percent of coral reefs destroyed, we are exploiting the ocean more than it can be replenished.

According to the United Nations, to protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in a true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it. We must build a connection to the ocean that is inclusive, innovative, and useful for the ocean and the life inside it.

Now we must plan for the long term and ensure that tragedies such as the X-Press Pearl fire do not occur again in our Exclusive Economic Zone, which is 23 times bigger than our land mass.

It is a tough challenge for a small island nation, but information and intelligence sharing among the region’s ports, Navies and maritime agencies is a must to avoid future incidents.

Also, there should be a more comprehensive, more accountable worldwide mechanism for the reporting of ship-borne incidents such as fires and mechanical failures on board. All dangerous cargoes should be declared truthfully to all ports on a ship’s roster.

At local level, there should be an extensive investigation on the X-Press Pearl incident, possibly with foreign expertise.

There are two main outstanding issues to resolve – whether the ship Captain and operators lied about the condition of the cargo (the Nitric Acid leakage) and if they did not, whether any authority in Sri Lanka knowingly allowed the ship to enter our waters regardless of the risk posed.

If that is the case, as revealed by an investigation, stern action should be taken against the officials concerned.

Sri Lankan authorities should also pursue compensation from the ship owners to the fullest extent possible, though no amount of compensation can really offset the damage caused to the country’s marine environment.

Finally, the lessons learnt from this tragedy must be used to ensure that this is the last one of its kind in our shores.