- Salvage operations of the sunken MV X-Press Pearl freighter off Sri Lanka’s west coast has made some progress with the rear section of the wreck successfully raised off the seabed.
- Meanwhile, a new study highlights how the marine disaster significantly impacted the coastal environment, water quality and, in turn, the ocean’s biodiversity, fisheries, seafood industry and the livelihoods of the fishing communities.
- The study records biotoxins produced by harmful algae from sample locations closer to the sunken freighter, a possible reason for a spate of turtle deaths and other marine animals following the MV X-Press Pearl disaster.
- As the environmental impacts were being published through the new study, the second interim report on the environmental damage due to maritime disaster was submitted to the Attorney General’s Department, the chief legal adviser to the government of Sri Lanka, which is expected to file a compensation claim in Singapore.
COLOMBO — The Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl was a brand-new container ship, only three months after being commissioned, when a fire erupted and began sinking off Sri Lanka’s western coast on May 20, 2021. The vessel, laden with 25 metric tons of nitric acid, lay in the dark seabed about 20 meters (66 feet) deep, and salvagers had to battle rough seas to cut it into three pieces in order to lift the wreck. One and a half years since the sinking, the X-Press Pearl was brought out of the depths of the ocean after its corroded aft section was successfully lifted into a barge in mid-January.
But the filing of a claim for compensation for potential environmental damage caused by the maritime disaster has not yet materialized. The law requires action to be filed within two years of the incident and this leaves Sri Lanka with less than four months to initiate legal action, a process that is expected to be painstakingly complex, says Dan Malika Gunasekera, an authority on the law of the sea and maritime law.
The X-Press Pearl incident has been recorded as Sri Lanka’s worst maritime disaster. When disaster struck, the freighter was carrying 1,486 containers with 81 of them labeled as hazardous, transporting 25 metric tons of nitric acid, caustic soda and methanol. In addition, there were 9,700 tons of potentially toxic epoxy resins on board. The shipwreck also resulted in the world’s worst ever nurdle spill, as the vessel was carrying 87 containers laden with several types of plastic pellets estimated to weigh around 1,680 metric tons.
Compensation claim not ready
Key to mounting a successful claim of compensation is a detailed report prepared by the Marine Environmental Prevention Authority (MEPA), the government agency responsible for the management of marine disasters. In the aftermath of the disaster, MEPA set up an expert committee consisting of about 40 experts representing different fields to assess environmental damage caused by the ship wreck.
“The committee submitted a first interim report in 2022 and subsequently, a second interim report to the Attorney General’s Department, the state agency that represents the Sri Lanka government,“ says Dharshani Lahandapura, MEPA’s chairperson. The 1,500-paged report holds the key to a successful legal battle. However, the Committee will monitor the situation and continue to update the report as some of the impacts such as nurdle-related pollution continue, Lahandapura told Mongabay.
The attorney general decides where to file this case, and it is possible this would happen in a Singapore court, Lahandapura adds.
However, some experts believe the case should be filed in Sri Lanka, not Singapore, due to local jurisdiction. “If there are no other obligations, filing a case in Sri Lanka is prudent, as this incident happened in Sri Lanka and the pollution impacts are also borne by Sri Lanka,” says Gunasekera. He says the Marine Pollution Prevention Act, the governing domestic law, contains sufficient provisions to address such issues.
It is in this backdrop that a new independent study focusing on water quality has been published, bringing to light the significant impacts on the island’s coastal environment following the disaster.
The study says the average nitrate concentration of selected coastal sites was recorded as 2.42 ± 0.77 mg/L. The average nitrate concentration in samples collected near the submerged cargo ship was 3.24 ± 0.20 mg/L, highlighting the highest nitrate concentration close to the sunken vessel.
The X-Press Pearl was carrying several tons of nitric acid, so this could be the reason for the higher concentration closer to the ship, says Manage Pathmalal, a professor at the Center for Water Quality and Algae Research, Department of Zoology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
Evidence of environmental impact
For study purposes, researchers collected surface water samples 10 centimeters (4 inches) deep from 11 sample points covering the coastline stretching from western Negombo to southern Bentota, covering an expanse of about 120 kilometers (75 miles) in length. The study was initiated in October 2021, roughly four months after the maritime disaster, with several sampling exercises being conducted until December 2021 on a monthly basis. Researchers had four sampling points close to the ship by about 50 m (165 feet).
The research teams discovered biotoxin close to the sunken ship. Biotoxin is a poisonous substance produced by a living organism — in this case, harmful algae. They also found a biotoxin known as saxitoxin, which is a potent neurotoxin that is harmful to animals and humans alike.
“This is the first recorded saxitoxins in the Sri Lankan coastal waters and the impact of nutrients discharged by the MV X-Press Pearl ship could be one of the main reasons,” Pathmalal tells Mongabay.
Studies elsewhere link the neurotoxicity effect of various algae to fish and marine animal mortality, so this biotoxin may be one of the reasons for the spate of turtle and other marine animal deaths, he adds.
The Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a local environmental NGO, supported the research, says CEJ’s founding president, Hemantha Withanage. Various government agencies conduct similar studies but in order to assess the magnitude of the disaster, an independent analysis is required to prevent speculation over the government’s data. Lahandapura, who heads MEPA, welcomes any scientifically sound research and says MEPA will be happy to incorporate the results of such studies in their updates.
Meanwhile, researchers are continuing to collect samples periodically from the same sampling points with the intention of monitoring the changes in the water quality over time. “We need a robust and continuing program to capture the impact on water quality around Sri Lanka from at least one selected sampling point, which will provide baseline data to compare when a disaster such as the X-Press Pearl occurs,” Pathmalal tells Mongabay.
Pathmalal M.M., Hemantha, R.S.K.W.D., Dilena, P.K., Liyanage, G.Y., Chalani, H.T.R., Bandara, K.R.V., Wijerathna, P.A.K.C., Abeysiri, H.A.S.N.,(2023). Impact of the MVX-Press Pearl ship disaster on the coastal environment from Negambo to Benthota in Sri Lanka. Regional Studies in Marine Science 58 (2023) 102788. DOI: 10.1016/j.rsma.2022.102788
Banner image of the rear end of the ill-fated X-Press Pearl, which had to be lifted onto submersible barges using a steel cable. Image courtesy of the Marine Environment Pollution Agency (MEPA).