X-Press Pearl: A disaster of yet unknown proportions

By Ashan Chandrasena (News and Media Team 2021)

 On 20th of May 2021, the ship ‘X-Press Pearl’ , which was operated by ‘X-Press Feeders’, a company based in Singapore, was on its way back from the Middle East when it caught fire near the ports of Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Not only has this event polluted our environment, but it has also caused many other long term effects that may take years to reveal themselves. 

When the accident occurred, the ship was bound for Singapore from the Jebel Ali port in the UAE, and it carried 1486 containers containing 25 metric tons of concentrated nitric acid, Cosmetic items, low-density polyethylene LDPE pellets among many other items. The crew had identified an acid leak in the vessel shortly after their departure heading to Malaysia. Before entering the ports of Colombo, the crew had requested entry upon the ports of Hazira and Qatar to deploy the chemicals and other contents. But the respective ports had rejected the entry of the vessel, as the ports had ‘insufficient facilities or expertise to immediately deal with the acid leak’ according to the news sources. 

The ship proceeded according to its plan despite the prevailing acid leak. As the ship entered the port of Colombo on the 19th of May it did not disclose the acid leak within the vessel to the authorities. But on the 20th of May the ship had requested a re-working of the cargo containers to the port authorities. The harbor master of the Colombo port mentioned that, with Colombo being a maritime hub it had the expertise and facilities to carry out the request. 

On the 20th of May the ship issued its first report of a fire which the crew had contained using the in-built emergency systems within the vessel. The crew, along with the authorities of the Colombo port investigated the cause of the fire, and they concluded that the fire was caused by the leaking of acid in the stacked up containers of the vessel. 

After the fire had continued for days, on 25th May, a large explosion took place inside the vessel of the X-Press Pearl and all 25 crew members on board were evacuated safely and 2 members who were injured were admitted into the National Hospital of Sri Lanka. Along with the explosion, the fire had spread further within the vessel. Late in the afternoon of the day the explosion occurred, containers started to become unhinged and fell into the sea, in addition, the fire had also resulted in an oil leak. Within a few hours, the Maritime Environmental Protection Authority of Sri Lanka (MEPA) declared a tier II spill. 

After days of tireless effort, the Sri Lankan forces, with the help of the maritime forces of India, were able to put out the fire by the 29th of May. However, the impact from the oceanbound containers is still unclear; the oil spill has decimated the coral reefs found near the Colombo-Negombo coastline. This level of damage is expected to extend to as far as Indonesia and Somalia. The oil sits on top of the water cutting off valuable sunlight and oxygen needed for the coral to thrive, while aquatic life also has more difficulty regulating body temperature as a result of the oil spill. 

 In an attempt to save the oceanic ecosystems, the salvagers tried to pull the ship out into deep water but were unsuccessful as it began to break and sink. The ship reaching the bottom of the ocean has caused further damage to the reefs in the region and the damage can already be seen in the marine life washing western and south-western seaboard..

Endangered turtles, many species of fish, dolphins and manta rays are among hundreds of aquatic organisms showing up dead, floating on the waters or washed up along the beaches.  All of the nearby towns and villages whose main source of income was from the ocean, have now been instructed to stay home and have been denied their livelihood due to the high levels of pollution in the sea. The regional chief of the fishing community stated that 4300 families relying on fishing will be affected economically because of this disaster. A disaster of this scale has not been seen in our lifetime, the scale of which we are only beginning to comprehend.  The explosion and subsequent sinking of this ship has polluted our seas, contaminated our beaches, killed our coral reefs and with it, our marine diversity. 

Will compensation by the authorities of X-Press Feeders ever be able to rectify the known and as yet unknown effects of this disaster? And how will our administrators put that compensation to use? These are the questions on everyone’s minds as we hope for the best.