Criminal probe to ascertain cause of fire on vessel | Sunday Observer
MV X-Press Pearl disaster

Criminal probe to ascertain cause of fire on vessel

12 June, 2021

A criminal probe and an investigation by the Department of Wildlife conservation is under way to ascertain the cause of the fire on board the container ship X-Press Pearl and the reason for the deaths of many marine creatures washed ashore last week.

Over 10 turtles, a dolphin, many fish and seabirds have washed ashore from Puttalam in the North West to Mirissa in the South since the disaster which occurred off the sea close to the Colombo Port, the previous week. The debris from the ship which was also carrying hazardous chemicals including nitric acid, had polluted over 150 km of stretch of the coastline, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) sources said.

The voyage data recorder which contains all the communication dialogues between the captain, the ship’s parent company and the local shipping agent was detained by the CID investigators last week, a Police spokesman said. The CID had recorded statements from the crew including the Captain.

The carcasses of decomposed marine species were strewn in beaches from North West to South including Unawatuna, Kosgoda and Panadura.

The Wildlife Department investigation will focus on to find if there was a link between the deaths of marine life and fire gutted X-Press Pearl which is now sinking off Colombo Port. The MEPA officials refrained from making comments to the media on the dead marine life, saying they were waiting for the results of the investigation.

The brand new Singapore-flagged cargo ship, which was on its third voyage, was carrying 1,486 containers with 25 tons of nitric acid and several other chemicals and cosmetics when it left India on May 15, foreign media reported. The ship relayed a distress call while in the Sri Lankan waters on May 20, Ports Authority officials said.

A joint firefighting effort by Sri Lanka and India, led by the Sri Lankan Navy failed to douse the chemical induced blaze. Within days, it was completely gutted and later the ship began to sink as it was being towed away into deep sea.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority warned the fire on the ship caused a massive environmental disaster as many beaches were damaged by the plastic and hazardous debris washing ashore apart from the irreparable damage to the marine life. Concerns have also been raised by fauna and flora experts that the toxic fumes from the burning ship might have an impact on the central hills, where most valuable rain forests of the country are located.

Dr. Sampath Seneviratne, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences of the University of Colombo, speaking on a local TV cautioned that this was a possibility.

Over 900 tons of grain size plastic pellets with sand have been collected from the affected beaches and stored in 45 containers at a Central Environment Authority yard.

The MEPA has begun the process to assess the damage caused by the vessel fire, Chairperson of MEPA, Attorney-at-Law DharshaniLahandapura said. Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said foreign expertise will be sought to complete this exercise.

Despite foreign media reports, the local officials denied that an oil leak from the ship had been detected. In such an eventuality, the Environmentalists warned, that the damage to the marine life and the coastline would be irreparable.

On the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a special meeting was held last week at the Ministry of Justice to focus on legal action against the ship owners, chaired by Ministers of Justice Mohamed Ali Sabry, Ports and Shipping, Rohitha Abegunawardana, Fish Exports state Minister Kanchana Wijesekera and Attorney General Sanjaya Rajaratnam PC. MF