Container shipping under scrutiny after MV X-Press Pearl disaster


By P.K. Balachandran

COLOMBO – After the container vessel MV X-Press Pearl caught fire on May 25 and subsequently sank polluting the sea off Colombo with dangerous chemical effluents, there is serious concern in Sri Lanka about pollution caused by maritime accidents.

But the problem of marine pollution caused by large ships has been of worldwide concern among shipping industry stakeholders for a number of years now.

The impact of maritime accidents involving huge container vessels is large because of the humongous volume of trade carried by them. Container vessel-borne trade accounted for around 60% of all seaborne trade in 2019 and it has been growing.

As the case of X-Press Pearl shows, container vessels also carry huge quantities of hazardous material which could cause immense harm to the natural, material and human environment. A short report written by a team of environmental scientists and edited by Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director at the Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka, dubs the X-Press Pearl a ‘toxic ship’ and warns, “The billions of plastic pellets washed ashore from Colombo to Gampaha, would last for 500 to 1000 years. You may collect some 50%, but the rest will remain in the coast among the sand.”

While the details are yet to be revealed, the vessel seems to have been carrying about 42 different chemicals and 45 different materials that possibly contained hazardous chemicals, the authors fear, noting that some chemicals, which are not toxic in a pure state, could be dangerous if ignited and mixed with water and warn plastic pellets can absorb other pollutants in water and transfer them through the food chain. “Or, if burned, could emit other hazardous endocrine disruptive chemicals such as Dioxin, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere, the scientists warn,” they add, warning some of the poisoning symptoms would take time to appear, while some show up immediately.

They point out a massive number of ocean creatures have died along the coastal belt and say that although the effect on humans is not yet prominently shown, it should be understood that depending on one’s immunity level, nutrient intake, hormone functioning, age, gender, chronic diseases, duration and frequency of exposure and route of exposure, the effect of the chemicals can vary on different people.

They also warn that nitric acid is very toxic if inhaled, is corrosive to metals or tissue and that prolonged exposure to low concentrations or short term exposure to high concentrations of Nitric acid may result in adverse health effects.

Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, who served on the Danish government’s Council on Corporate Responsibility from 2009-2012, has put the problem in the global context, claiming that 80% of the world’s ecosystems are degrading faster than they can recover; 60% of European cities’ groundwater is used faster than it can be replenished. Interestingly, “environmental markets” are developing, and a growing number of natural resources will be valued for their functions: For example, a  tree can have more ‘value’ alive (bio-diversity and carbon sequestration) than dead (timber).

He draws attention to the fact that there will be a shift in the “global centre of gravity” towards Asia. “The rise of an Asian middle class with more than one billion middle-income consumers by 2030 will accelerate planetary resource constraints. Two billion people will be added to the global population by 2050, and three-quarters of them are expected to live in a big city,” he says, noting that these cities, many of them ports, will be crowded, less organized and more problematic from an environmental point of view posing a challenge to world trade.


According to Jorgensen, most of the issues faced by the container shipping industry relate to emissions, with the current focus being on Green House Gases (GHG). “There are also strong signals that sulphur oxide (SOx), Nitrogen oxide (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM) and black carbon would receive greater attention due to the significant human health and environmental impacts,” he notes.

He deems the container vessel sector a polluting sector and says the industry’s total Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions comprise between 3% and 4% higher than the total emissions of Germany. “The annual Particulate Matter (PM) and Sulphur Oxide (SOx) emissions from the shipping industry contribute to the premature death of more than 60,000 people globally. They also contribute to millions of peoples’ respiratory problems, specifically those living close to congested ports,” he adds.

Bunker fuel, (low-grade heavy fuel oil used to power a ship), is the major reason for these emissions. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the global body that regulates the industry, had set out to bring the sulphur content down to 3.5% from 4.5% by 2012 and further down to 0.5% by 2020. Nitrogen-oxide (NOx) contributes to respiratory issues. Black carbon is widely considered a particularly harmful substance that is potentially the second-largest contributor to global warming after CO2, he says

The impact of ballast water discharged by container vessels is another key area of environmental concern. Ballast loading is necessary to stabilize a ship at sea. To this end, water is collected in special ballast tanks before departure from the port. Large tankers can carry in excess of 200,000 m3 of ballast water. When pumping up ballast water, local marine organisms will inevitably also be included and probably also some sediment with adsorbed marine organisms. Without special precautions, this practice causes a massive spread of marine organisms from their native habitats to areas where they do not naturally occur. Ballast water is therefore widely regarded as the most important vector for the spread of potentially invasive alien species.

Issue of Legality

International container shipping companies also deal with issues of legality because both legal and illegal products are transported through the industry’s networks. “Companies find themselves under the same kind of pressure that telecommunication services providers have experienced for transmitting content they can’t control,” Jurgensen points out, calling for container vessels to be watchful about what is loaded.

Advanced Cargo Information Schemes (ACI) has to be strengthened. “The general trend towards increased transparency will put additional pressure on the logistics supply chain to guarantee stellar security. Some international container shipping lines will see opportunities in upholding high standards under all circumstances. These companies recognize that serious security breaches can have wide-ranging reputational and operational impacts, as well as serious cost implications. Such companies will look to organize their security efforts within a management system approach to ensure continuous improvement. They also will strive to collect and report appropriate data to regulators, enforcement agencies, and supply chain partners,” Jorgenen says.

Safety performance has stagnated and in some cases worsened. As a result, ships now are twice as likely to be involved in collisions or groundings compared to just five years ago.

“Human error is a key issue, and it is on the rise due to an increasing undersupply of skilled crew worldwide–combined with more technical equipment, that has increased the complexity of operations. On top of this, higher commercial pressures resulting in increased workloads compound the problems. The global economic crisis is also cited as a key factor affecting shipping safety performance, as the agenda shifts to cost-cutting initiatives.” he explains.

Charles W. McCammon Risk Consultant, in his blog dated February 18, 2020, says the new environmental regulations and financing headwinds may lead to the industry needing more than US$1 trillion to set up new systems to meet the new demands and challenges. He suggests that the international financial sector should devise products to enable the container shipping industry to make the necessary innovations and put in place new mechanisms.


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