Fire damage assessments could take many months- MEPA chairperson | Sunday Observer
MV X-press Pearl:

Fire damage assessments could take many months- MEPA chairperson

20 June, 2021
The sinking ship - X-press Pearl
The sinking ship - X-press Pearl

Three experts from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) arrived in the country on Wednesday to help assess the damage caused by the fire wrecked merchant vessel X-Press Pearl.  

 An expert on environmental economy and two on the environment will work with the local experts to quantify the overall damage to the marine environment among other aspects, by the inferno on board the Singapore flagged container vessel. The ship sank off Sri Lanka’s West coast releasing containers of hazardous chemicals and tons of plastic nurdles into the sea.  

 Deaths of marine animals 

Carcasses of many sea creatures including the highly endangered sea turtles as well as dolphins, fish, sea birds and other marine species started washing ashore about a week after the disaster.  

 Environmentalists and Marine biologists have expressed deep concern over this incident which is deemed the biggest marine catastrophe to have occurred in the seas off Sri Lanka. The salvaging of the ship, which has now completely gone under water, has been suspended due to the rough monsoon conditions.   

 “Our first concern is to remove the wreckage from our waters. The second is to claim the damages and the third aspect is to restore the environment and minimise the impact of the chemical leak into the sea and the fire, State Minister Nalaka Godahewa told media last week, explaining the progress of actions taken by the state agencies and ministries following the disaster. 

 The cargo ship which was destroyed almost completely by a chemical induced fire about a month ago, currently lies on the sea bed, 9.5 nautical miles off the Colombo Port. Although the Navy is yet to confirm, by late last week the Salvaging company reportedly informed that the ship had completely sunk. 

 Removing the wreckage 

 Dr. Godahewa said, the responsibility to remove the wreckage vests with the ship’s owners, Express Feeders. A joint committee has been appointed comprising Ministers of six Ministries and officials from the institutions under their purview to liaise with the company.” A decision not to get involved in the salvage operations was made after extensive discussions with all stakeholders. If we try to interfere, it will affect our e compensation claim,” he said.  

The salvaging company has informed the State officials that it was risky to remove the wreckage during the prevailing monsoon conditions. “We have to take that into account. It is true that until the wreckage is removed, the threat posed by the ship to the ecosystems and marine life will not be deemed over,” he added.   

 The owners of the ship have appointed a second company to overlook the wreck until the salvors can begin their work. A Navy boat and other boats positioned near the ‘X-Press Pearl’ is keeping a close watch over. 

 Concerns over oil leak 

 Marine Environment Protection Authority Chairperson Darshani Lahandupura said, the Express Feeders and the ITOPF have assured that that there was no bunker oil leak from the sinking ship. ITOPF is a not-for-profit marine ship pollution response adviser. It provides impartial advice worldwide on effective response to spills of oil and chemicals at sea. 

 Dr.Godahewa said, the white patch visible in the satellite images surrounding the ship could be a reflection of light or an  algae formation, as marine biologists have opined. 

 “Our biggest worry was the nearly 300 tons of bunker oil. If this leaked into the sea, it could have caused a major disaster,” Lahandupura said.  

 After studying the images of the fire and other evidence -  the intensity of the fire near the oil tanks, the temperature/heat and its location - it has been concluded that the bunker oil in the tank would have been consumed by the fire. The CEO of the Express Feeders and the Captain of the Salvors have conveyed this to the MEPA in writing. 

 She said the MEPA officials visited the ship’s location on June 15 and took samples of the sea water. These samples too proved that there was no bunker oil leak so far. “Nevertheless necessary teams and equipment are on standby to face any eventuality.”  

 Damages and costs 

 The State Minister said compensation claim to the ship’s owners will be based on Sri Lanka’s law as well as the international law. “On the compensation front, we are seeking expertise locally and internationally, to calculate the damage already caused and the future impact on the marine ecosystem.” 

 On the restoration front, the Minister said they have reached out to other countries which faced similar disasters, to get in touch with the agencies that handled the restoration work. 

 Dr. Godahewa said Sri Lanka has made an interim claim of US $40 million for the damage caused during the first ten days, this includes the compensation for the livelihoods lost for fisher community. “This is not the final claim,” he said. 

 A day after the tragedy was reported, several Ministries formed a committee to face the massive environmental challenge. The Coast Conservation, Environment as well as Ports and Shipping Ministries and the Sri Lanka Navy, started cleaning the beaches almost immediately after, while the ship was still burning, he said rejecting claims that the Government was slow to respond.   

 Responding to claims that Sri Lankan officials did not take action to douse the fire until it was too late, he said, “The ship arrived on May 19 and it anchored on May 20. After 12 hours, the ship’s crew notified a smoke and said they managed to control it. After 14 hours they again reported a smoke and this time they said the smoke cannot be controlled on their own.” 

 Sri Lanka Navy boarded the ship to inspect the situation at 4.00pm on May 20 but by then the firefighting had already begun. 

 Lahandupura said already 1000 kilos of debris, plastic waste mixed with sand have been collected and stored. “We have to think of a way to dispose of the debris. More than what is washed ashore, we are concerned about the pollution that may have caused to the sea bed - of the plastic and ship’s parts that are lying at the bottom of the sea, “she said. 

 The coastal stretch that was initially identified to have been affected by the floating debris was later expanded considering the monsoon weather. On Wednesday a carcass of a huge fish was beached in the northern island of Kytes. “We are investigating if this death is connected to the ship’s fire,” Dr. Godahewa said.  

 Sensitive details about animals 

 The MEPA Chairperson said they could not reveal the sensitive details including the numbers of the deaths of sea creatures until the legal claim is made to the ship owners.   At the media conference the State Minister invited volunteers to help in the beach cleaning work. “Following this tragedy we saw how emotional people were of environmental issues. We invite volunteers and experts to extend help -  to clean the beaches or to assess the damage. They can contact MEPA and we will connect them with relevant agencies,” he said. 

 “The people who are directly affected by this incident, can also contact the MEPA,” Dr. Godahewa said.   A committee comprising members from Ministries of Fisheries, Foreign, Environment, Coast Conservation, Justice and Ports and Shipping have been appointed to work on the compensation front.  

 MEPA Chairperson Lahandupura said they hope the assessments by the expert committee will be over by three months. “This is a very ambitious target, after the oil tanker fire in September 2020, the assessments took over 14 weeks. Compared to this, the destruction it caused was very small,” she said. 

 Two eminent Professors from Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenepura universities and number of other institutes are gathering samples and evidence, working on damage calculations. They will take stock of the damage caused to fishermen’s livelihoods, tourism, biodiversity, sea bed and birds. Assessing the economic loss to the country will be a major component of these calculations. 

 Secretary, Environment Ministry,  Dr. Anil Jasinghe said it was important to learn from the experience of other countries which have faced similar emergencies given that this was the first time Sri Lanka faced a maritime accident of this magnitude. In 2012, an accident in the sea off Hong Kong, 150 tons of plastic pellets in nine containers were released to the sea. During the cleanup operations about 108 tons were collected. Norway reported a similar tragedy in 2020. 

Pix: Sudath Malaweera  and Saman Sri Wedage