Sri Lanka Still Seeks Answers To The Greatest Hazardous Ship Disaster In The Country’s History

About 18 months after the massive X-Press Pearl disaster, Sri Lanka has reportedly filed some charges against the ship’s crew member, however, the government stands accused of being consistently opaque on the extent of the tragedy, being extremely slow in suing for compensation, and also not demanding enough.

The Singapore-registered ship, loaded with plastic pellets and hazardous chemicals, caught fire off the west coast of Sri Lanka in May 2021, due to a nitric acid leakage. However, 25 members of the crew could be evacuated. Only two suffered some minor injuries.

On Nov 25, five individuals, including the ship’s captain and the local agent, were given indictments per the country’s Marine Pollution Prevention Act, reportedly released on bail, and then banned from overseas travel.

Whale Carcass
Image for representation purpose only

Arundika Fernando, Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Urban Development and Housing, informed the parliament last week that an interim report was handed to Australia’s legal advisers and he hoped that the nation would receive US$3-4 billion as compensation, with some specialists hoping for more. But it is unsure when it will reach.

The vessel, which was approximately 9.5 miles off the country’s western coast when it caught fire, ultimately sank after it burned for days. It eventually spilled nitric acid of about 25 metric tons and a significant amount of plastic pellets.

Carcasses of dead animals washed ashore by July 2021. There were reports of 417 dead turtles, eight dead whales, and 48 dead dolphins.

Reports mentioned that the ocean was polluted with fuel and chemicals from the vessel. In September 2021, a daily leak of a little less than 20 liters of fuel was also reported.

In the weeks following the unimaginable disaster, debris could be found on many of Sri Lanka’s beaches, from Mannar in the country’s northwest to Hambantota in the nation’s south, which are over 300 miles apart. In an interview, Shmuel Yoskovitz, the X-Press Feeders’ boss, and the ship’s operator apologized for such a tragedy.

A substantial portion of plastic pellet pollution would stay mobilized for decades in the ocean, he explained at the 22nd Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers meeting held in Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka’s activists and experts have been calling for the government for providing more detailed information.

Muditha Katuwawala, a Pearl Protectors’ coordinator, said that they have been waiting for the government to make public reports on the tests conducted on the animals that beached.

Searching for truth

Some research publications paint a grim image. They mention that the plastic pellets on beaches across Sri Lanka, including popular surfing destinations like Arugam Bay, could be laced with extremely hazardous chemicals.

A study this year revealed that during the fire, the pellets, also called nurdles, were reportedly exposed to “carcinogenic combustion products”, making them the carriers of carcinogens as well as other pollutants.

The study, released in 2022, stated that owing to complex chemical reactions that happened during the blaze, metals like lead, mercury, and copper were detected in lumps of burned pellets. They carried traces of carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some in risk concentrations, and toxins like benzotriazole UV stabilizers, used in coatings and paints to hinder light-induced degradations.

The ACS Environmental Au report also said delays in the ship’s wreckage removal would have “significant potential for further impacts. Salvage operations are still taking place.

White nurdles first were seen to be blanketing some of Sri Lanka’s celebrated western coast beaches, but are now discoloring, Katuwawala said.

Katuwawala’s trusted volunteers have been collecting nurdles nearly every weekend since 2021 (July). Until now, 2,600 individuals have been involved in picking up about 1.6 tons of pellets. On 27 November, they collected about 23kgs from Negombo.

Nurdles are spread over a significant area of the country. Katuwawala has spotted them in Batticaloa, on the east coast, approximately 200 miles from the nation’s western beaches. Monsoons complicate the issue with more pellets appearing after the season’s occurrence.
Minister Fernando said that nearly 5,000 fishing-related in the nation’s Western Province were impacted in the immediate aftermath of such a disaster. They are continuing to be affected to date.

‘A pittance’

Sri Lanka has received about US$7 million for interim claims from the insurer of the ship, based in London. However, legal specialists say this is a “pittance” if we have to consider the extent of the damage.

While liability doesn’t lie with Singapore in such an instance, Sri Lanka can easily litigate in London, said Dan Malika Gunasekera, a maritime law expert.

But after more than 18 months, the Sri Lankan government has been incapable of estimating the true cost of the damage caused to the national environment and its industries. And herein lies a huge problem, with financial and legal ramifications.

A petition was filed in June 2021 against Sri Lanka’s president, governmental agencies, and the ship’s owner and operator, citing health and environmental damage and massive livelihood losses.

The window to apply for further and extended compensation following Sri Lankan law will end in May but the attorney general’s department said in recent times that it was waiting for the country’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) to share the evidence required to go ahead with legal steps.

Dharshani Lahandapura, the Mepa chair, said most laboratory and postmortem reports on dead animals had been received and were getting added to compensation applications, after thorough discussions with Australia’s legal advisers.

The [reports] are going to be published after they finalize the claim and take required legal actions.

Meanwhile, Pearl Protectors continue with their clean-up operations but to be safe from harmful items lurking on beaches, they insist that the volunteers wear gloves and nobody dares to walk barefoot.

References: Lumi News, News Wav, asia one

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