Sri Lanka is currently facing the worst man-made maritime disaster to date after the chemical-laden MV X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged container ship, caught fire on the 21st of May while it was anchored approximately 9 nautical miles (NM) northwest of Colombo. The ship’s cargo was mainly plastics, chemicals and dangerous goods. According to the cargo manifest, a total of 1,486 containers were aboard the ship consisting of 445 containers of plastics/rubbers, 120 containers of chemicals and allied industries, 81 dangerous goods, 568 other goods and 272 empty containers.
The route taken by the X-Press Pearl indicates several stops at international ports before arriving in Colombo. The timeline and route are highlighted in the following map.
Detailed below is the timeline of the incident which resulted in the X-Press Pearl shipwreck.
May 20: Smoke was reported in the cargo hold. Following the report, emergency procedures were undertaken which released carbon dioxide into the cargo hold. Simultaneously the port control and local authorities were informed which resulted in firefighting teams and Navy assets being placed on standby.
May 21: The initial report of the fire on deck. Firefighting teams and a helicopter were deployed to manage the fire.
May 22: The initial report from the crew of an explosion in the cargo hold. Firefighting operations continued.
May 23: The 12 crew members were disembarked from the vessel, allowing a firefighting team of 12 members to enter. Firefighting operations continued.
May 24: The fire intensified and was reported to have reached the tail of the vessel.
May 25: The second explosion was reported around noon, it was louder and resulted in the evacuation of the remaining crew members and the firefighting team. They were all transferred to a quarantine facility while 2 were sent to the hospital due to leg injuries during the evacuation. 10 containers fell into the sea.
May 26: Firefighting operations continued with Sri Lankan Navy vessels and helicopters as well as 2 Indian coast guard vessels. The debris and nurdles that were released to the sea during the explosions have started reaching the Shoreline of Sri Lanka. 3 JCB diggers were provided to the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to be used to clean the shoreline and to be used by the defence forces mobilized for the cleaning.
May 27: All relevant personnel continued to be present on sight to extinguish the fire and it was reported that it has diminished to an extent.
May 31: A decision was made to tow the boat to a refuge site located 50 NM west of the coastline to minimize impacts on other maritime shipping and the coastal environment.
June 1: The engine room was reported to be flooded by an inspection team of salvors on board the vessel. The report highlighted concerns over the ship’s stability due to the amount of water present. MEPA orders the vessel to be towed out to the deep sea. Several failed attempts at towing were reported and the operation was aborted due to safety concerns.
June 2: Further efforts to tow the ship to deeper waters also failed and the ship’s tail end sank to the bottom of the ocean at about 21 metres and 9.5 NM off the coast of Colombo. The front end of the ship remains afloat with continuous smoke being released from cargo hold 1 and 2. Oil spill response teams remain on standby.
June 4: Salvors retrieve the anchor.
June 6: Reports made by the Navy divers highlight that they retrieve the vessel’s Voyage Data Recorder and note that there were no signs of debris or fuel oil spill.
The Environmental Impact
Unprecedented pellet spill
According to independent estimates, close to 75 billion low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) and possibly high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic pellets were spilt into the ocean from the distressed vessel. Plastic pellets, also colloquially referred to as ‘nurdles’, are the raw materials that are melted down to produce nearly all plastic products. Weighing merely a fraction of an ounce, at a size of 5mm or less, nurdles are considered primary microplastics that are originally manufactured for commercial use.
Being lightweight and buoyant, the nurdles have spread across the western, southern and northwestern coasts of Sri Lanka. In due course, this is bound to become a regional problem since ocean currents and wind speeds will continue to disperse. According to a computer-generated model shared by Prof. Charitha Pattiaratchi from the University of Western Australia, the nurdles will make landfall in many of the Indian Ocean countries (Indonesia, India, Somalia and Maldives) due to the reversing monsoon currents in the region.
When nurdles spill into the ocean, they absorb pollutants that have moved into our seas through land runoff, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most commonly encountered POPs, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), organochlorine pesticides and industrial chemicals, can have significant negative impacts on the environment and human health. Even though plastic, as a raw material, is popular for its versatility, what is not so popular are the ingredients added in the manufacturing process that make plastic so versatile and colourful. These ingredients consist of fossil fuel contaminants, additives such as dyes, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and plasticisers.
When marine animals consume these lentil-sized nurdles by mistaking them for food such as fish eggs or roe, the toxic chemicals inside can leach out and bioaccumulate or build up in their cells and tissues. The ingestion of nurdles alone could block their digestive tracts, leading to starvation and death. While more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by macro-plastic ingestion or entanglement, a study published in the Environmental Pollution journal in 2018 suggests that even particles as small as 5mm could push these animals further to the brink of extinction as microplastics and chemicals can be passed from one trophic level to the next throughout the food chain.
The predicted immediate impacts of the recent maritime disaster in Sri Lanka were apparent, as lifeless fish washed up with nurdles lodged inside their gills and mouths. A vast number of other marine wildlife, including sea turtles, were also found dead on beaches in several parts of the island. However, whether the nurdles were a cause of death is yet to be determined in the absence of necropsy results.
The nurdles and other microplastics can also have long-term effects on sea turtle nesting beaches, by potentially altering the temperature and permeability of sand. This would impact sea turtle populations, as the gender of hatchlings is temperature-dependent.
Nurdles were also observed floating and accumulated to the banks of the Negombo Lagoon in Western Province, where an extensive Coastal Mangrove Forest is present, within which spawning sites for a multitude of marine species are found. The accumulation of nurdles could have had an impact on such species as well.
Marine Animal Deaths
Sri Lankan waters are home to 5 out of the 7 species of sea turtles and thus far 5 species have been found lifeless on the Sri Lankan shores, namely; Leatherback sea turtles (the largest turtles on Earth), Olive Ridley sea turtles, Green sea turtles, Loggerhead sea turtles and Hawksbill sea turtles.
According to the information submitted by a government analyst’s report, deaths of 417 sea turtles, 48 dolphins and 8 whales have been recorded as of the 30th of July. Even though the official necropsy results are yet to be released, statements made by the relevant ministries and expert committees indicate that the deaths were linked to the pollution caused by the ship. Independent researchers/experts such as Mr. Ranil Nanayakkara has also kept records of the marine deaths and the latest data according to his scores indicate that carcasses of 426 turtles, 58 dolphins, 11 whales and 31 sea snakes have been recorded along the coasts of Sri Lanka since the shipwreck. A variety of fish species were also found along the coastlines, which included carcasses of Pufferfish and Moray Eels. Table 01 provides a brief description of some of the identified marine fauna from the aforementioned deaths and their conservation status as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
A toxic concoction
Aboard the ship were about 81 containers of dangerous goods carrying 15 different types of dangerous goods according to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code). The spill of Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) identified in the cargo manifest raised serious concerns on the potential impact on the marine environment. While several HNS such as nitric acid, caustic soda, methanol, sodium methoxide, sodium methylate, vinyl acetate are either flammable and/or soluble substances that could have been burnt during the fire or dissolved in the water, the severity of the nitric acid (25 tons) and caustic soda (1040 tons) spillage cannot be overstated.
Following the disaster, a UN team of oil spill and chemical experts worked with the Sri Lankan Government to assess the impact on the environment caused by the MV X-press Pearl disaster by providing technical advisory support to the Sri Lankan experts on oil spill contingency planning, clean-up operations and environmental impact assessment. The team produced an independent report of the incident with key findings and recommendations on short-term response measures and longer-term recovery planning and submitted it to the Government.
According to the aforementioned Report of the UN Environmental Advisory Mission (July 2021), while both nitric acid and caustic soda are soluble, they may sink into the seawater column since their density is higher than that of seawater, hence may have collectively formed a corrosive plume on the seabed. Thus, the observations of “bleached” and “burnt” carapaces of the dead sea turtles that washed up following the disaster could be due to their contact with the moving plume of nitric acid and/or caustic soda. The report also denotes that the containers of methanol (210 tons) on the upper deck probably burnt off during the fire causing the reported explosions. The methanol that burnt off during the fire may also explain the reported explosions as its container was located on the upper deck.
While epoxy resin which accounts for one-third of the cargo (9700 tonnes in 349 containers) is not listed as a dangerous good in the cargo manifest, it could pose a threat to the marine environment particularly in the form of liquid. However, the cargo manifest does not specify whether epoxy resin was in the form of liquid, solid, paste or gel.
Epoxy resin is generally used in the manufacture of adhesives, plastics, paints etc. In liquid form, epoxy resin could potentially create a plume close to the seafloor which can be toxic to aquatic life while also posing a threat to marine fauna with long-term impacts.
The question of oil
An oil spill was much anticipated from the distressed vessel that carried 348 tonnes of bunker oil since it began to sink. A continuous release of oil emanating from the MV X-Press Pearl had been detected by the UN team from both satellite and on-site observations since the 8th of June 2021. The presence of bunker oil, which was identified to be an Intermediate Fuel Oil 380 (IFO 380), was confirmed to be IFO by the laboratory analysis of the oil sample collected near the wreck by the Centre of Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution (CEDRE) in France. The oil on board the MV X-Press Pearl has been identified as a mixture of approximately 95% of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) and 5% gasoline. As HFO is dense, it’s blended with lighter fuels like gasoline to achieve the required specifications.
When all refined products have been extracted from crude oil, the residue which is a tar-like substance is referred to as HFO. The same product is known by other technical names such as bunker oil, marine fuel, furnace oil, fuel oil, Number 6 Fuel Oil (Bunker C) etc. HFO is widely used by ocean-bound vessels, that comprise cargo ships, cruise ships, ferries, oil tankers and bulk carriers as it is about 30% cheaper than the alternate lighter marine fuels. The physical properties of HFO include impermeability, elasticity and fire resistance. IFO 380 in the vessel, therefore, has a limited probability to have burnt in the fire, hence the UN team concludes that a substantial residual quantity of oil may be present in the fuel tanks which are located in the vessel’s lower part below the waterline. The drifting slick of oil is said to either evaporate due to weather conditions or drift towards the beaches where they will either be mechanically eroded by friction with the sand grains or get buried in the sand.
Following the observations, the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) of Sri Lanka (the agency responsible for preventing, controlling and managing marine pollution in Sri Lankan waters under the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008) implemented the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP). NOSCOP divides oil spill response into three categories based on the amount of oil spilt and the proximity to a response centre: tier I involves relatively small spills of up to 50 tonnes; tier II includes spills that ranges from 50 to 100 tonnes; and tier III addresses leakage of more than 100 tonnes, which require international assistance to combat the spills. The resources under MEPA include several oil booms, dispersants, chemical response kits, a spray machine and a decontamination unit while combined resources of other stakeholders include skimmers, foam, pumps and temporary portable storage.
Smoke resulting from the fire and explosion of the MV Xpress Pearl lasted around 10 days and could be visible from the Western Provincial coast, which resulted in significant air pollution. When considering the chemical containers on board the ship, the smoke is believed to have a concoction of pollutants comprising nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, soot, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, a range of hydrocarbons as well as dioxins, furans, and heavy metals.
According to a mapping conducted by the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) using limited primary data, the total spread of the smoke was at 120 square kilometres (km2) and reached the Western province as well, which is one of the highly populated regions in the country. Further tests on the impact of these chemicals after reaching the upper atmosphere are difficult to determine as time has passed to research the area. However, it would be a difficult task as other pollutants could also result in acid rains, constantly being produced and released into the atmosphere via anthropogenic means.
The Economic Impact
As of August 2021, the economic impact of the X-Press Pearl wreckage is yet to be fully understood due to the prevailing COVID-19 situation on the island and the lack of monitoring of the overall impact on economic activities in the country. The fisheries sector was already suffering as a result of the pandemic restrictions, this shipwreck is an added setback. With regards to the seafood export industry in Sri Lanka, certain developments can be attributed to the marine disaster such as potential long term impacts on fish stocks. Several countries had expressed concerns over the safety of consuming fish from the waters of Sri Lanka due to the chemical pollution from the shipwreck.
According to the Secretary of the Seafood Exporters Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL), 5 to 7% of the seafood export industry has been affected due to restrictions in place for fishing shallow water fish while also highlighting that there has been no impact on tuna fisheries within the export industry. There are potential long term impacts on fish breeding grounds which could result in lower yields of crabs and jumbo prawns which are sought after delicacies of foreign tourists. As a result of the shipwreck, 8 out of 15 tourist zones on the coast are losing their attraction due to continuous chemical, plastic and other debris pollution washing ashore.
There are concerns over the long term impact on marine tourism in Sri Lanka, especially with regards to marine tours to observe sea mammals such as dolphins and blue whales. Due to the pollution from the ship, experts are predicting that declining water quality may cause cetaceans to leave Sri Lankan waters over time. Furthermore, as a result of the increasing marine fauna carcasses washing up on the shore, there could be unseen impacts on juveniles leading to a decrease in certain species of marine fauna. These impacts on marine life in Sri Lankan waters could have detrimental impacts on the tourism industry in the coming years.
The Sri Lankan Government received LKR 720 million as initial compensation from the Shipwreck and LKR 420 million of that was reserved for the affected fishing community. Before receiving the above-mentioned compensation, the Sri Lankan Government identified 9883 fishing families that were affected and allocated an initial total sum of LKR 49,415,000 as compensation. Through this fund, LKR 5000 was allocated to each of these families. Negombo lagoon supports generational fishing communities, who were heavily affected following the immediate aftermath of the wreckage but some fishermen have already received compensation.
The Social Impact
The social impact caused as a result of the MV X-Press Pearl disaster is yet to be fully understood. As a result of the prevailing COVID-19 restrictions in Sri Lanka, the social impact from the accident alone is difficult to determine. However, there is evidence of fishing communities being affected throughout the Western and North-Western Provinces. In the Western Province alone, 7753 fishing families faced a loss of income following the disaster, while 2130 families that were involved in drying fish and fish netting also experienced a loss of income.
To this date (August 2021), there is no evidence to state that the consumption of seafood from the waters surrounding the accident will not present negative health impacts on humans. Due to the lack of releasing the water test results as it is evidence for an ongoing court case, the general public is yet to know the safety of our waters. The presence of nurdles in seafood has caused many to be concerned about consuming local fish, which has also impacted the fishing communities. The Sri Lankan authorities have classified the nurdles as hazardous material as a result of the toxic nature of the nurdles and the chemical pollution from the ship.
Research suggests that the chemicals in microplastics have the potential to cause human health impacts. There have been several global studies that have identified potential chemical and physical impacts of microplastic on human health. Some of the physical impacts on the human body could be enhanced inflammatory response and disruption of the gut microbiome. There is still ongoing research to understand these impacts better.
Chemical additives in microplastics have potential negative impacts on human health, while it is also in the research phase, a significant correlation between BPA (Bisphenol A) levels in the urine and both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes has been found. Humans are exposed to BPA through microplastics (low dose exposures) as well as non-microplastic sources (low and high dose exposures) from air and ingestion of food.
Many Sri Lankans expressed concerns over the safety of consuming salt as many of the industrialised salt pans are situated in the North Western Province, due to the pollution released from the ship as it was in close proximity. However, the private sector salt company named Raigam, released a statement, highlighting the safety of the salt for human consumption.
Several domestic and international legal instruments provide rights and liabilities to the parties involved; namely the shipowner (X-Press Feeders), flag state (Singapore), port state (Sri Lanka) and the charterer.
MEPA is the apex body that is responsible for the prevention, control and management of marine pollution in Sri Lanka; as well as the enforcing Government Entity for the provisions stipulated by the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008 (MPPA).
The provisions stipulated by the MPPA provide the following rights and liabilities:
Section 22 – requires every ship that enters the territorial waters of Sri Lanka to “carry record books relating to oils, harmful substances or any other pollutants.”
Section 23 – requires every ship entering the territorial waters of Sri Lanka to be “fitted with such equipment for the prevention of the discharge of oil, harmful substances or any other pollutant as may be prescribed” and imposes liability on “any owner, operator, master or agent of a ship who contravenes the provisions of this section” to be “guilty of an offence under this Act and shall on conviction be liable to a fine”.
Section 24 – sets out the steps to be taken when there is a maritime casualty which is defined as, “a collision of ships, standing or other incident of navigation or other occurrence onboard a ship or external to it resulting in material damage or imminent threat of material damage to a ship or its cargo.”
Section 34 (civil liability) – owner or operator of the ship shall be liable for the damage caused by the discharge or escape of harmful substances within a maritime zone of Sri Lanka.
Section 26 (criminal action) – the owner, operator, master or the agent of the ship shall be liable for any discharge of harmful substances from a ship into a maritime or coastal zone or fore-shore of Sri Lanka.
Other examples of domestic Parliamentary Legislation that may apply include the Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act, No. 51 of 1979 (as amended), the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Act, No. 57 of 1981 (as amended), the National Environmental Act, No. 47 of 1980 (as amended) the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, No. 2 of 1937 (as amended), the Maritime Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 and the Department of Coast Guard Act, No. 41 of 2009.
At the same time, the flag state is bound by several international conventions. Both Sri Lanka and Singapore ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 back in 1994 and are state parties to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) 1973 as amended. Both countries have also acceded to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974.
The provisions set out by the following Articles under Part II and XII of UNCLOS may be applicable.
Article 21 – Laws and regulations of the coastal State relating to innocent passage
Article 24- Duties of the coastal States.
Article 98- Duty to render assistance.
Article 192 – General obligation for states to protect and preserve the marine environment.
Article 194 – Measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment
Article 211 – Pollution from vessels
Article 217 – Enforcement by Flag States
Article 235 – Responsibility and liability in the international obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment along with an objective of assuring adequate and prompt compensation for all damage caused by pollution.
Following the MV X-Press Pearl disaster, MEPA instituted a lawsuit against X-Press Feeders on behalf of the Central Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), by means of the Attorney General’s Department of Sri Lanka (AGDSL) which is currently ongoing. In addition, an Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee of senior government officials was established by the Cabinet of Ministers for overall coordinated response to the matter. Accordingly, Five Sub-Committees comprising legal action, compensation claims, environmental impacts, fisheries impacts and economic damages were formulated under the guidance of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Several public interest litigation cases have also been instituted in the aftermath of the disaster. The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), an environmental conservation and public interest litigation organisation in Sri Lanka, filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka to seek justice for the social and environmental damage caused.
Cleaning up nurdles is an uphill task and unless they are physically removed they will become part of the estimated 51 trillion microplastics that are littering the ocean. Mitigation efforts in terms of cleanup were especially challenging due to the COVID-19 Containment Measures that were in place at the time, as well as the risk of chemical exposure at the shoreline which was the epicentre of the disaster. The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) together with the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, the Sri Lanka Police and other Government Entities took up the task of restoring the worst-hit areas along the coast of Negombo, which in the immediate aftermath appeared to be coated in plastic snow due to the billions of nurdles that had washed ashore. As of 14 July 2021, MEPA has collected 1,600 metric tonnes of nurdles and other debris.
Moreover, in early August 2021, MEPA confirmed that there was an oil sheen emanating from the shipwreck and that they are mechanically dispersing the oil sheen for speedy evaporation. The oil sheen was observed to be spread across 1 NM (approximately 1.9 kilometres) away from the ship. MEPA also added that using chemicals to disperse the oil is not a possible solution due to the existing chemical pollution surrounding the ship. An oil spill prevention mechanism is in a position close to the wreckage which includes containment booms through the oil spill response limited which is an organisation appointed by the shipowners to control potential future oil spills from MV X-Press pearl.
After some of the COVID-19 Containment Measures were lifted, volunteer groups and citizens came forward to assist the collection of nurdles. The Pearl Protectors, a youth-led marine conservation group, launched the “Nurdle Free Lanka” volunteer campaign to help tackle the nurdle-strewn beaches. The group uses three tools to effectively filter the nurdles embedded in the sand. As of August 2021, the group has collected 872 kg of nurdles over six volunteer mobilizations across four beaches in the Western Province. The group has also placed ‘Nurdle Portals’, starting with the Mount Lavinia and Dehiwala beaches, where the nurdle tools will be available at any time to be borrowed by anyone from the Coast Guard Points.
The Way Forward
August 2021 marks over 3 months since the disaster but there are many data and information gaps regarding key aspects of the shipwreck and the aftermath. The general public in Sri Lanka is awaiting the official test results from the water tests and the necropsy test results of the dead marine wildlife. Moreover, an assessment of the sensitive benthic ecosystems comprising coral reefs is essential, with one of the many reasons being that such ecosystems and marine wildlife play a key role in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. There also exists a need to alleviate the public concern over seafood safety by assessing the chemical and microplastic contaminants in seafood in the areas that were impacted by the spills that emanated from the vessel by disseminating a comprehensive report to the public.
Several immediate steps need to be taken by the Central Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), starting with addressing the existing legal loopholes that surfaced in the aftermath of the disaster. While Sri Lanka has strong legal provisions which can be used to claim compensation and remove the shipwreck from the immediate territorial waters, legislation that can be used is dependent upon the legal authority that is taking the lead on the incident. Therefore, it is important that the Marine Pollution Prevention Act is updated and strengthened to provide a legal base for similar maritime disasters in the future.
The ongoing disaster has yet again emphasised the need to further strengthen Sri Lanka’s maritime disaster management capacity. While Sri Lanka has a contingency plan to tackle oil spills, there is no chemical contingency plan in place. Minimising nurdle spills, however, would require changes to international maritime regulations to ensure that nurdles are packaged, stored and transported with high precaution. Against this global backdrop, being a country that has experienced what’s considered as one of the largest nurdle spills, Sri Lanka can effectively advocate towards reviewing the existing regulations by documenting the impacts and the need for prevention at the source. To build on a stronger maritime disaster management plan, it is essential to review the existing international maritime conventions, accede to those that are in the best interests of Sri Lanka and update domestic laws accordingly.
Furthermore, it is imperative that Sri Lanka promotes the need for interagency communication, removal of overlapping mandates and strengthening cooperation between government entities that are relevant for a marine disaster at any scale. Lack of data transparency and accountability is a major hindrance to achieving good governance in Sri Lanka. Since Sri Lanka is committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), prioritising SDG 16 which addresses good governance, could transform the country and lead to lasting prosperity.
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