A tragedy buried at sea


by Shenali Boteju

Instagram: @dihara2404

It was in the year 1912 that the Titanic sank, leaving the world shocked in its tragic wake. At the turn of the new millennium, it is still undeniably one of the most recounted tales that history has to offer. Likewise, the sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl has left an imprint in our memories, there being only a matter of time before the full impact of the damage sustained would rear its ugly head long after the waters claimed the burnt-out remnants.

The vessel was inbounding towards Singapore, mapping its route from UAE through Qatar, India and Sri Lanka, carrying a cargo comprising of 1486 containers including 25 tons of nitric acid, ethanol, cosmetic chemicals and 300 metric tons of fuel oil.[1] Needless to say, that it was no surprise that the root cause of the fire that broke out in the cargo hold was traced back to a chemical leak aboard the ship. Some argue that it was purely the negligence of the crew and the relevant Ports Authorities who failed to recognize a likely threat and take preventative measures when the smoke from the fire was first detected on the 20th May 2021 while anchored several nautical miles Northwest to the Port of Colombo.[2] Others argue that the tragedy could have been prevented much earlier, especially when the crew detected the leak in the Arabic sea. Upon detecting the leak, the crew had requested to offload the containers at the Hazira Port in India and at the Hamad Port in Qatar. However, they had been advised against this as there had been no sufficient facilities or expertise to deal with such a leakage. Shockingly, the leak had not been reported upon arrival at the Colombo Port.[3]

The incident is riddled with finger-pointing, with less attention dedicated to revealing the damage sustained and the potential damage that can be expected on the ecosystem. For instance, how many of us can say that they are familiar with the term ‘nurdles’? In a recent webinar session hosted by the Colombo Law Society and CORE Justice, Professor Sarath Pattiarachchi stated that approximately around 3 billion ‘nurdles’, which are tiny round pieces of plastic pellets used in the manufacture of nearly most plastic goods, have been discharged into the ocean and have been found washed up on the beaches of Sri- Lanka, especially around Negombo. While these nurdles are non-toxic, they can be harmful to marine life, as they can get lodged in the gills of fish, suffocating them. These pellets however can cause no harm to coral reefs, the Professor notes.

Professor Pattiarchchi further went on to state that with regards to the leakage of chemicals, there has been an unknown quantity which has been released, but that it is likely that this will be highly diluted with the water. This however does not mean that all is well, as we have had 176 reported turtles, 20 dolphins and 4 whales beached, dead. There can be many more that have gone unnoticed, and many other species of marine life that are endangered. For instance, the toxic waste discharged by the cargo and vessel can pose a serious threat to Hawksbill sea turtles who visit our beaches to lay eggs and to our coral reefs which are already facing pollution.

Recently, the black box chip of the vessel was recovered from the wreckage as part of the investigation to uncovering more details as to how the initial acid leakage was caused.[4] Is there more to the story? Only time will tell.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6UHwX-j2FE

[2] https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/x-press-pearl-slowly-settles-to-the-bottom

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6UHwX-j2FE

[4] https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/rest-of-the-world-news/sri-lanka-recovers-black-box-from-fire-stricken-mv-x-press-pearl-ship.html