An avoidable environmental catastrophe: Where did it go wrong?

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By Jayantha Wijesingha

Sri Lanka is currently experiencing the greatest marine disaster in its history caused by the burning and sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl in the shallow waters less than 10 nautical miles north of Colombo Harbour. It is the second calamity in less than a year, both similar in nature, involving ships carrying dangerous materials.

Almost a week passed before the list of materials onboard was shared with the public. Was it given to the firefighting team, and if so, at what point was it given? Had that cargo list been made available at the very outset, firefighting efforts might have been strategized better, provided that the right experts with common sense were in charge.

Past outcomes

The chemical leak from the MT Granba was an almost identical event to the X-Press Pearl disaster, the main differences being in how they were handled and resolved. The Granba was a Turkish chemical tanker that in 2009 anchored six nautical miles away from Foul Point, Trincomalee, following a leak from its cargo of 6,250 metric tons of sulphuric acid. The Sri Lanka  Navy and the shipping company’s rescue operators rescued 19 members of the ship’s crew and towed the ship more than 60 nautical miles away to an almost 3,000m depth, where it finally sank. Just a little over Rs 15 million was paid as criminal and civil liabilities. Both X-Press Pearl and Granba carried highly nitric and sulphuric corrosive acids. However, X-Press Pearl carried other hazardous chemicals together with the cargo of nitric acid, including caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and sodium methoxide – chemicals that can create extreme heat and combust on contact with any reactive substance including water – and many other hazardous materials as well.

In 2006, MV Amanat Shah, a ship from Bangladesh carrying thousands of tons of timber, sank off the coast of Koggala, with 176 metric tons of fuel, polluting roughly a 15 km stretch of beach.  Before that, in 1999, MV Meliksha sank off Bundala with over 16,000 metric tons of chemical fertilizer and 200 metric tons of fuel, also ending up polluting the sea. The environmental damage of that incident was not calculated properly; it was treated as just another maritime accident for Sri Lanka.

In more recent times, Sri Lanka Glory, carrying 22 metric tons of bunker oil, met with an accident in Rumassala, damaging the Buona Vista coral reef barrier and threatening an oil leak. Fortunately, rescue efforts for this relatively small ship ensured no harm was caused to the reef. The most recent incident before X-Press Pearl involved an oil tanker named MT New Diamond, registered in Panama and carrying over two million barrels of crude oil, it caught fire while approaching Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline. Joint operations by Sri Lanka and India ensured that no significant damage was done to the ocean or the ship.

Fortunately, the accident took place relatively far away from the coastline. Had the oil leaked, it would have completely ruined the ocean and the entire eastern coastline. Sri Lanka had to fight the fire and did so successfully using both water and dry powder compound (DPC). The salvage company appointed by the parent company of the New Diamond arrived relatively soon, with support both from Singapore and Mauritius. The handling of that disaster was relatively smooth.

Failures in MV X-Press Pearl disaster

The current crisis involving the X-Press Pearl, a ship registered in Singapore (a maritime centre most would agree is more reliable than Panama, where the New Diamond was registered), has presented Sri Lanka with many different challenges. It also exposed all our weaknesses, shortcomings and failures – failure to make smart decisions on time, failure to coordinate with better-equipped nations and rescuers, failure in harbour operations, in terms of national security, in terms of maritime security, in terms of marine environment protection, failure to deal with contingencies related to chemical/hazardous material, and possibly failures in adhering to protocols and in complying with local and international maritime laws.

The ship was carrying 1,486 containers, among which were nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and sodium methoxide alongside other hazardous chemicals and material. The full list of chemicals was not revealed to the public (including interest groups and organizations) until almost a week had lapsed. The full list of declared goods (the cargo manifest) was shared on social media around June 3 but with no official government source.

The general lack of public information gave rise to various speculations; one of these was about the ship being turned away at two other ports in Qatar and India. It was later revealed that both ports had rejected the ship’s requests to repack the packaging of its leaking nitric acid cargo but had allowed the ship to dock. In any case, this shows the acid leak was known and communicated even when the ship was in Qatar.

Given that the captain knew of the nitric acid leak even before reaching Port Hamad in Qatar, he continued the journeying to Port Hamad and then onwards to Port Hazira in India. It is unclear as yet what other options the captain exhausted before deciding to continue journeying with a nitric acid leak.

Could the captain have instead sailed back to the Port of Jebel Ali in Dubai, where the nitric acid container was originally loaded and asked for it to be repacked there? Did the captain discuss with the onward ports the possibility of one of the ports repacking that container rather than blindly going from port to port to be refused a repacking until Colombo? Another question in Sri Lankans’ minds is why the captain did not proactively raise alerts about the leak both to Colombo and to its parent company, so that Colombo could stand by with resources to handle a possible disaster, considering the clear risks. It is almost impossible to believe that the captain had followed proper protocols, given that his ship was journeying with a leak of hazardous chemicals.

It is hard to believe that the ship did not disclose the leak to Colombo before entering Sri Lankan waters, and it is similarly hard to understand why the captain would have failed to do so, if that was indeed the case, given that he knew of the leak even before reaching the ports in Qatar and India. However, Sri Lankan Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardana claims Sri Lankan authorities did not know of the leak until after the ship had anchored in the outer harbour.

The Colombo Harbour Master has in a public statement said that upon the second distress alert from the ship, a local team had been sent to the ship to assess the situation. During that assessment, the local team had seen fumes, but no fire, and therefore had returned to land, seeing no need for interventions at the time. The visible fumes (and by then also their knowledge of the leak) should have been a crucial enough signal for the local team to know that chemical reactions were taking place at high temperatures and to recognize that such conditions would not resolve on their own and that intervention was absolutely necessary. It is indeed surprising that in explaining how the situation worsened unexpectedly, the Harbour Master highlighted the role of bad weather.

It is surprising that the Harbour Master spoke of the winds as something unexpected when in fact he should have known of the weather in advance based on forecasts. Perhaps the disaster could have been prevented if the local team had paid proper attention to the fumes seen during the first visit to the ship. It is a grave failure for highly experienced maritime personnel to be caught surprised by compound risks and to have behaved recklessly, optimistically and complacently in the case of a leakage in dangerous maritime goods.

This raises several further questions:

  1. Why did Qatar and India not alert Colombo if the ship had previously docked in Qatar and India and those ports knew there was a leak? What was the weakness in regional maritime communications that caused this, which could be improved upon?
  2. Did the ship alert Colombo of the leak before anchoring in the Colombo outer harbour? If the answer is no, what is the reason?
  3. Did the ship not ask its parent company for immediate assistance? At what point did the ship first alert the parent company of the leak?
  4. If Sri Lanka had been informed of the leak prior to anchoring in the outer harbour, why did the local authority allow its docking there?
  5. Why was the leaking ship not given priority and handled earlier, rather than making it wait days in the outer harbour until a massive fire erupted?

 

Firefighting outcome

In firefighting, the ‘golden minute’ is a very narrow window of opportunity to succeed, after which every passing minute lowers the rate of success. Knowing this, if Sri Lankan authorities had known of a threat of a fire, disaster management measures should have been ready by the time the ship arrived. Instead, the captain and crew dealt with the fire by themselves and failed.

The Sri Lankan authorities stepped in after the ship’s disaster call. Thereafter, several questions arise. The process of stopping two million barrels of oil from spilling to the sea and that of sealing a leaking container full of nitric acid are very different. What went wrong?

  1. At the point of beginning the firefighting operations at the ship, did Sri Lanka re-analyse the ship’s hazardous material and/or the cargo manifest before deciding on the type of retardant to use?
  2. Did Sri Lanka use water to douse the fire that erupted from a nitric acid leak?
  3. In the firefighting operation, if saving the environment had been prioritised over and above the saving of cargo and the ship, would the authorities have recommended using other methods than those that were actually used? (Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) believed that chemicals being burnt would have been a better outcome for marine ecosystems than their spillage into the sea).

Disaster preparedness lacking

In an imminent disaster, it is not prudent to plan for the best-case scenario. For almost a week, Sri Lanka was planning for the best-case scenario instead of the worst. Even now we are yet to get enough anti-oil spill equipment, such as enough oil containment booms, in place to deal with an oil spill.

Media reports show that on May 20 (Day 1), the day of the X-Press Pearl’s arrival and distress call, 11 hours passed before the Navy made its initial official reporting and it took almost 15 hours for MEPA to get to know the initial official communication despite the imminent danger. Eventually, around 6 pm of Day 1, i.e. almost 18 hours since the ship docked in the outer harbour of Colombo, several teams met together for the first time for a technical meeting. By the time these teams physically visited the ship, 36 hours had passed since the first reporting of the incident.

Environmental apocalypse

After numerous failures and bad and delayed decisions, the ship is now a wreck on the shallow ocean floor in the outer harbour of Colombo. Most of the cargo is burnt but no one knows accurately how many chemical containers remain intact. Nobody knows how many of the containers that fell into the sea while the ship was burning are now stacked on the ocean bed.

The severe impact of this disaster is evident on the coastal belt spanning from Mannar to Matara. Pollutants range from plastic pellets (nurdles) and partially burnt container material to crude oil. The impact of the contaminants will be felt for decades. As a conservation community concerned about our marine environment, we often speak about plastic and microplastic pollution. This is the worst plastic pollution by the quantity that Sri Lanka has ever faced. Cleaning it up could take years and thousands of millions of dollars at a minimum. If cleaning the beaches is difficult even with the manpower of the Sri Lankan forces, how can we even begin to properly clean the seabed?

With such a large amount of nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methoxide and other chemicals in the relatively shallow water around the now sunken ship, with several natural reefs in the vicinity, the dramatic change in the PH level of the water, even for an instant in time, will have affected highly sensitive marine flora and fauna. Reports abound of visible marine life death (turtles, fish, crabs and many other reef-based marine fauna and flora). Although small, burned carcasses have washed up to shore, the impact on large mammals such as whales and dolphins is yet to be seen. Some may have managed to abandon the area for the time being. Also mostly unseen is the damage under the ocean; damage from plastic raw materials and chemicals, burnt containers and parts, and oil from barrels and fuel tanks could last decades if not centuries.

Now the ship has sunk, the newest danger is that from hundreds of tons of oil spilling into the surrounding ocean. Air Force images showed a yellow patch in the water surrounding the ship, a sign of an engine oil leak. Are we ready to handle a potential fuel leak and a crude oil leak as well? The answer is a simple no! The supposedly available oil booms are a haphazard collection of small parts from various entities and are not the best to handle a 300 metric ton oil leak in turbulent water, especially in the current weather.

All material reaching beaches, including the adjacent seawater, need to be continuously monitored for very probable contamination. People must be stopped from touching such material. Moreover, attention must be drawn to ensure a minimum impact on the Negombo lagoon, although preventing it completely may not be feasible.

It is time we take coastal conservation seriously to give marine conservation greater priority. Sri Lanka has been reported to rank as one of the top marine polluters in the world. Oceans are the biggest ecosystem in the world and also the most important. Oceans hold great biodiversity. They are not only the largest greenhouse gas sequester but also the biggest producer of oxygen. It is a source of food for people and one of the biggest modes of transportation. As a small island nation, Sri Lanka depends so much on the ocean economically, socially and culturally.

Generations will grieve

If the beaches look this bad, how bad must the ocean bed look? If this is just what floats and gets washed ashore, we can imagine the volumes that have sunk and what it might be doing to the ocean. Imagine the state of corals, marine plants and fish in the area from Matara all the way to the northwest coast including the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, one of our most important marine sanctuaries, home to more than 3,000 marine plant species alone.

Imagine the hundreds of thousands of fishermen who have lost their livelihoods. The disaster has resulted in a complete halt of fishing in an 80 km stretch off the western coast, affecting large numbers of smallholder fisher families. Fishing will not be possible for quite a while. Even if it were allowed soon, the fear of hazardous chemical contamination will prevent sales.

Imagine the millions of Sri Lankans who use the western seas, enjoying the health-giving effects of a dip at least every weekend and are now robbed of pleasure?

Imagine the impact on tourism in this stretch of beach, considered a tourism hotspot, the beautiful marine environment where whale watching, dolphin watching and diving was big money. Can any amount of compensation help restore what was lost?

Most important of all concerns is the lack of significance and priority given to protect our coastal zone belt and marine territory. We have more than 500,000 Ha of marine territory, part of which lies one of the world’s busiest naval routes. Yet, for the second time in a year, we were not prepared for an incident. We have a serious lack of resources to deal with fire; this is alarming for a country that plans to become a regional naval hub. We have developed plenty of ports to serve passing ships but lack resources to help them when help is needed the most. It is puzzling to see we have not even contracts/MOUs in place to seek necessary support from better equipped marine powers such as India, Australia, Singapore and Indonesia. Plenty of powerful nations have their vessels either patrolling or docked in the region; why we could not reach out for their help immediately?

We saw the Navy and Coastguard and MEPA along with the police employing hundreds of personnel every day to clean the beach of debris, plastic, dead fish and various contaminants. Almost 100 containers of waste washed ashore have been collected. That is only in the coastal area between Uswetakeyiyawa and Negombo. The rest of the beaches have not received the same attention. Even during the waste collection process, a lack of tools and technology was evident. Advanced beach cleaning tools are a must-have for Sri Lanka, necessary not only for the management of this particular disaster but also to tackle continual coastal and marine pollution after every monsoon.

Compensation and financial transparency

For the New Diamond disaster, Sri Lanka sent out a bill of about $2.4 million as firefighting costs and another $19 million as environmental costs. Although we got $1.9 million for our firefighting, we have no guarantee of compensation towards covering the environmental costs. The legal procedure with the ship’s insurance company is a lengthy one.

The public is yet to know where and how these funds received have been used. The estimated environmental costs of the New Diamond were relatively small compared to that of the damage from the X-Press Pearl. Looking at the firefighting efforts and the environmental damage, we can assume the damages by the X-Press Pearl are well over $1 billion.

The future

Sri Lanka sees more than 350 ships passing by every single day, a route that is not only busy but also ever-growing. More disasters must be expected. We must plan to increase our marine security, to have a stronger system to monitor dangerous materials coming in or passing by. Marine transportation is one of the highest polluting industries in the world and oil spillages and ship fires are part of that industry. Many large economies handle such disasters as a matter of course, minimising their negative impacts. This way, they continue to reap maritime revenues without seeing those revenues offset by losses due to disasters. Sri Lanka is a small island, with a concentration of ecosystems in a small area, and we stand to suffer more severe losses in a maritime disaster than larger countries, and we are also more economically sensitive to disasters.

We hope the local authorities will do their best to ensure that similar events will not end catastrophically in future; that Sri Lanka gears itself to handle such situations, in a timely and responsible manner, in partnership with international friends through diplomacy and regional cooperation; that the right experts are recruited to look into contingencies and disasters; and there is better coordination among the respective bodies for quicker responses. Politicians should take a backseat to experts, and those experts should be chosen for their common sense and quick, rational, analytical decision making rather than merely for their academic qualifications.

We also call for an urgent review of our existing pre-defined partnership agreements for marine cooperation, with a special focus on contingency/disaster management, to equip Sri Lanka better to handle similar situations in the short run until we are equipped to handle disasters mostly on our own.

We must also invest in specialised marine firefighting power both by water and air. In addition, we must invest in equipment and technologies needed to handle oil spills. Global innovations to deal with marine pollution today range from special types of reusable cotton that absorb large quantities of oil to plastic buster robots designed for the sea. Local innovators can replicate some of these technologies if they receive the necessary support. Advanced anti-oil-spill booms and firefighting technology are available and affordable, either online or through government-to-government agreements.

In a future situation, we need to quickly mobilise a first response team, then immediately set up an expert panel to handle the entire operation, including a captain with experience on a similar ship, experts in different types of firefighting (including a chemical fire expert), international maritime experts who can seek outside support where needed, disaster management experts, harbour operations experts, maritime lawyers, rescue operations experts, marine biologists, security experts, chemical experts and someone who can mobilise government and private firefighting/rescue operations.

Our marine territory is eight times the size of our landmass, and this helps our economy immensely through tourism, fisheries and maritime transportation. For an island nation such as ours, our marine ecosystem is vitally important. Its ecosystem services are beyond price. However, for many Sri Lankan policymakers, regulators and parts of the public, our oceans have become either a dumping ground or a merely resource for overexploitation. We must realise that the oceans are our most important and most critical ecosystem.

-This article was originally featured on groundviews.org

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