X-Press Pearl Cleanup Should Be Completed in Four Months

xpress pearl
File image courtesy Sri Lankan Navy

Published Feb 7, 2022 1:50 AM by The Maritime Executive

Authorities in Sri Lanka have started clearing the debris of the ill-fated containership X-Press Pearl while they pursue compensation for the worst environmental disaster ever to hit the country’s coastlines.

The Sri Lankan government has reported that the process to clear debris and parts of the sunken ship has commenced and will be completed in a span of four months. Shanghai Salvage holds the wreck-removal contract. 

“A supervisory committee composed of representatives of relevant institutions has been appointed under the Director General of Commercial Naval Secretarial in order to supervise the process to make sure that no oceanic pollution occurs due to the process of removing the debris,” said a statement by the Government Information Department.

It added that Sri Lanka has appointed Australian law firm Sparke Helmore to assist it in seeking compensation for the environmental damages caused by the vessel, which was carrying a variety of hazardous chemical cargoes, including 25 tons of nitric acid and about 1,600 tonnes of plastic nurdles. The nurdles were released to the environment en masse, many in partially burned condition. The UN believes that the nurdle release from X-Press Pearl represents the single largest plastic spill in history. 

While the Sri Lankan authorities have already filed an interim claim of $40 million, they also intend to seek compensation for costs incurred from firefighting efforts.

To build its environmental compensation case, the government has contracted overseas laboratories to analyze the biological samples of oceanic life and other samples collected in the area. The authorities have already collected about 1,000 metric tons of hazardous waste, and beach cleanup efforts continue to remove plastic. 

According to the cabinet brief, the first installment of compensation for fishermen affected by the disaster has been paid out from the $3.7 million issued by the vessel's P&I club. “Discussions are being held with P&I Company to recover the remaining rights,” said the statement.

The local fishing community - whose livelihoods depend largely on marine life - were adversely affected by the disaster that saw a large number of sea animals, including whales and turtles, die and the government impose a ban on fishing activities.

The cabinet said that a ban imposed on fishing in the Kaluthara district has now been lifted, and the restrictions/ban applicable to both the Colombo and Gampaha districts will be lifted once the process of clearing debris is completed. 

The Singapore-registered containership X-Press Pearl caught fire in May 2021 just off Colombo's harbor, and it burned for two weeks before sinking. The cause of the blaze is believed to be a leaking container of nitric acid, which the crew had been attempting to offload in a port of refuge for safe handling.