Authorities scramble to clear debris from troubled MV X-Press Pearl

Friday, 28 May 2021 00:17 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Personnel from the Sri Lanka Coast Guard, Navy and Army work around the clock to remove debris from the fire-stricken container vessel MV X-Press Pearl. A large volume of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) granules from sacks marked Lotrène are washing ashore along the western coast – Pic by Waruna Wanniarachi


By Asiri Fernando

Armed forces personnel were deployed on Wednesday to clear debris including some deformed shipping containers from the fire-stricken MV X-Press Pearl which had washed ashore between Dickowita and Chilaw.

Personnel from the Sri Lanka Coast Guard, Navy and some 300 soldiers joined in the effort coordinated by Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), Military Spokesman Brig. Nilantha Premarathne said. According to the Navy, close to 30 tons of debris washed ashore had been removed as of last evening. 

Navy Spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva told Daily FT that the troubled vessel’s fuel storage had not ruptured as of last evening and no significant oil leak had been detected. With assistance from the Indian Coast Guard, local responders and salvos had managed to contain the fire. However, adverse weather increases the risk of re-ignition.  

The large-scale cleaning up operation comes in the wake of the Colombo Harbour Police launching an investigation into the incident. The Police inquiry follows a complaint lodged by MEPA citing damages to the environment from the MV X-Press Pearl incident, Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said yesterday.

The Colombo Fort Magistrate has ordered that samples recovered from the site and coast be submitted to the Government Analyst, DIG Rohana added.    

Some coastal residents were seen collecting packages and debris washed ashore despite a warning by MEPA and the Police not to do so citing possible hazardous material among the debris. The Police have arrested several suspects who had stockpiled packages that had washed ashore. The Police and Navy will patrol the affected coastal area to prevent members of the public from coming in to contact with the hazardous material.

A large volume of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) granules from sacks marked Lotrène have been observed washing ashore, which experts worry can cause significant harm to the marine ecosystem. The debris from the MV X-Press Pearl will likely towards Colombo and the South by the weekend said Oceanswell, a Marine conservation research organisation citing an ocean current model prepared by two experts. A meeting was held in Uswetakeiyawa yesterday afternoon with several Government stakeholders present to coordinate the coastal clean-up operation, the Navy said, adding that more resources will be committed to the operation in the coming days. According to the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), an expert panel was appointed earlier this week to carry out a damage assessment of the incident and submit a report. The panel made up of marine scientists, subject matter experts, state authorities and academics.

“NARA has been tasked with analysing the biological impact. We have deployed four teams to check along the coastline and Kalpitiya Bay and samples of marine and coastal species have been collected for testing,” NARA Director General Dr. H.M.P Kithsiri told Daily FT, adding that the monitoring process by NARA could take weeks.

NARA also plans to use divers to assess the impact on the coral reefs along the coast once the sea conditions become favourable. NARA also plans to dispatch its research vessel to collect marine life samples from the sea area offshore as the weather improves, Dr Kithsiri stated.

It could take weeks if not months to fully understand the environmental impact of the incident, NARA scientist Dr. Deeptha Amarathunga opined.

According to Maritime News outlet Splash247, the MV X-Press Pearl has been denied access to Hamad Port in Qatar and Hazira on the Indian west coast following the detection of leaking cargo by the vessels Captain. Splash247 cited Tim Hartnoll, the executive chairman of X-Press Feeders, that poor packaging was responsible for the acid leak, which is alleged to have been detected while the vessel was in the Arabian Sea, thousands of kilometres away from Sri Lanka.

Responding to questions on why Sri Lanka permitted the vessel to enter the Colombo Port anchorage, Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena yesterday said that he has called for a report as to how permission was given by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera also called for an investigation in to the matter.

“The vessel nor the agents had informed the Colombo Port of the chemical leakage, prior to been given permission to enter the anchorage,” SLPA Chairman (Retd.) Maj. Gen. Daya Rathnayake told the press last evening.  A team of fire-fighting and salvage specialists from SMIT Salvage, headquartered in Rotterdam, who was called in by the ship’s owners are awaiting calmer seas to board the vessel again to assess the impact of the fire. Earlier this week personnel MEPA also visited the anchorage to obtain samples from the site to establish if there has been any impact on the environment.

Vessels and aircraft from the Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Air Force and the Indian Coast Guard, supported by Tugs from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and salvos continue in their mission to douse the blaze on board the Singaporean flagged MV X-Press Pearl as strong winds and rough seas continue to hamper their efforts. A directive given by MEPA to tow the vessel out to sea has not been possible due to the spread of the fire and adverse weather along the coast.

The Sri Lanka Coast Guard has forward-deployed the vessels SLCG Samudra Raksha and SLCG Samaraksha which have limited oil spill control capabilities to Colombo Port to respond to any oil spill from the troubled MV X-Press Pearl.

 The Indian Coast Guard has also sent its purpose-built pollution control vessel ICG Samudra Prahari, which is on-site.

Sri Lanka’s lack of capacity to effectively respond to maritime emergencies has been called into question again as local authorities sort assistance from neighbouring India to control the situation. The experience with the MT New Diamond tanker which caught fire off the east coast recently had underscored the need to have purpose-built fire-fighting, salvage and pollution control capability for military and civil response agencies. The air-naval and coastal capacity gap in response and pollution control undermines Sri Lanka’s aspirations to become a ‘Maritime Hub’.    

The MV X-Press Pearl, a 185 m long vessel, was en route from Hazira Port in India on 15 May to Colombo with 1,486 containers, including 25 tons of nitric acid and several other chemicals on board, when it issued a distress call while in anchorage, 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo Harbour.