- MT New Diamond carrying 270,000 tonnes of crude oil moved with help from India
- Fire under control after two days, smaller vessels still deployed in dousing the ship to prevent reignition
- Local authorities assure that situation under control, damage to ecologically sensitive East unlikely
- Specialised Indian aircraft capable of spraying oil spill dispersant chemicals at Mattala Airport
By Asiri Fernando
Authorities last night began to tow the stricken super tanker MT New Diamond carrying 270,000 tonnes of crude oil away from Sri Lanka, the result of a days-long myriad of efforts by the Navy, Air Force and Indian Coast Guard to douse the flames onboard and keep the ship sufficiently cool to avert a massive oil spill.
Sri Lankan authorities yesterday assured that the situation was under control with all efforts being made to coordinate with the Indian counterparts to use tugs to tow the behemoth ship out to international waters while other vessels continued to douse the tanker to prevent reignition of the fire. By last evening, no flames were visible but extensive repairs are likely to be needed to get the ship running again.
Local authorities including the Maritime Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) were considering several contingency measures, including legal action against the ships owners if an oil spill occurs. However, Sri Lanka has loopholes in the requisite legislation needed to make such a claim on an international oil company, according to shipping experts.
Two large tugs, the ‘APL Winger’ and ‘TTT One’, summoned by the owners of the ‘New Diamond’, are on site and engaged in fire-fighting along with two tugs from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) as of last evening. Specialised fire-fighting vessels from the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) were also on site, with Air Force Mi-17 helicopters flying 66 sorties to ‘water-bomb’ the ‘New Diamond’ over a two-day period.
The tugs joined Navy and Coast Guard vessels from Sri Lanka and India to regain control of the Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) which was drifting closer to the Sri Lankan coast, reaching 22 nautical miles (40 km) off the Eastern Coast by Friday afternoon. According Navy spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva, the larger tugs had begun to tow the ‘New Diamond’ further into international waters. De Silva said that there were no visible flames as of last evening and that the towing operation had begun.
A senior naval officer told the Daily FT that once the vessel was completely under control, the owners will be consulted and the ‘New Diamond’ towed to a safe location of their choice.
Addressing a press conference held at the Department of Information yesterday, Naval Operations Director General Rear Admiral Y.N. Jayarathne downplayed the risk of a possible oil spill from the tanker.
“Our first priority is to contain the fire and control it. The smoke which is rising from the vessel may last a few days, however once we have stopped the fire and removed the possibility of reignition, then we can declare the vessel safe,” Jayaratne said, pointing out that the risk of the vessel breaking up or leaking oil was minimal as long as the fire was quickly brought under control. “I can clearly say that, in the current situation, there is no risk of an oil spill near Sri Lanka,” said R. Adm. Jayarathne, adding circumstances were different from the recent incident in Mauritius. The nature of the New Diamond’s double hull, and the fact that a major part of the vessel was well-below the water line (12 metres draft), will keep the crude oil relatively cool, and the ocean’s water pressure will reduce any leakage if cracks appear below the hull, he explained. The vessel built to Japanese standards is said to have a range of safety features to prevent leakage.
Responding to a question R. Adm. Jayarathna opined that the 2-metre-long crack detected by the Indian Coast Guard towards the back end of the vessel was due to intense heat generated from the fire which raged overnight. However, he downplayed the impact of it as the crude oil compartments are protected by a strong bulkhead.
However, contingency plans have been drawn up and oil spill containment equipment and teams have been forward deployed to control any spill if it occurs, Jayaratne said. Two Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) vessels, which are equipped to respond to oil spill and pollution control tasks, have been sent under the contingency plans.
A specialised aircraft from the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), which is capable of spraying oil spill dispersant chemicals, was due to arrive at Mattala Airport last evening as a precautionary measure.
MEPA said it was planning to take legal action against the owners of the ship in the event of an oil spill. MEPA has also written to the ship’s owners and Indian Oil Company that transfer of the crude oil on board MT New Diamond to another vessel is not permitted in Sri Lankan waters. MEPA Chairperson Dharshani Lahandapura warned that if there was an oil spill from the ‘New Diamond’, it would be “one of the biggest environmental disasters, not only for Sri Lanka and the region, but to the world”. MEPA has lodged a complaint at the Thirkkovil Police Station as a preparatory measure for possible legal action and are seeking advice from the Attorney General.
Responding to a question, Lahandapura acknowledged that MEPA lacked adequate equipment and resources needed to effectively support a major oil spill. However, she said that the apex marine regulator was now making necessary arrangement to be better prepared in the future.
“As a country, we don’t have adequate resources to deal with this, we are seeking assistance from regional and international partners,” Lahandapura said, pointing out that they have requested for personal protective equipment (PPE) from the European Union to equip their “response teams”. Three such response teams are stationed around the coast to respond to any oil spill, Lahandapura added.
The Maldivian Government has also expressed concern regarding the incident and a potential oil spill, with the Maldivian Minister Ahmed Naseem taking to Twitter to express his concern.
The MT New Diamond was 38 nm (70 km) off Sangamankada Point on the East Coast when the distress call was issued on Wednesday (3 September). The 20-year-old, Panamanian-registered super tanker (330 metres long) was carrying a consignment of 270,000 MT of Crude oil for the Indian Oil Company from a port in Kuwait to the Indian port of Paradip when the fire broke out. The vessel is owned by the Liberian-based Porto Emporios Shipping Inc.
Pix by Upul Abayasekara