An oil spill near the Sri Lankan port of Colombo is quickly developing into an environmental crisis, as local environmentalists demand justice.
On the 20th May, the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-owned shipping container carrying chemicals and cosmetics as well as large amounts of lubricating and engine oil caught fire. Currently located just 9.5 nautical miles off Sri Lanka’s port Colombo, the ship has become an increasing threat to sea life, and livelihood. The biggest concern for authorities and environmental campaigners is the potential oil spill that could occur if containers aboard the sinking 186m long ship start to leak. Currently, the ship’s hull has settled on the seabed, whilst other sections of the ship continue to sink down slowly. The possibility of oil and chemical leakages remains high, and already environmental damage has ensued, as nearby beaches have become blanketed in a coating of microplastics due to the spillage of several containers on board. These plastic pellets threaten marine life. Their size being no bigger than a grain of rice allows them to be ingested by fish, mammals and birds whilst their absorbency causes them to soak up toxic chemicals, dispersing toxins into ecosystems.
Most recently, the bodies of 10 turtles, a dolphin, fish, and seabirds have been found washed up on the nearby beaches of Pandura and Wellawatte, suggesting that marine life is already being affected. The crisis has evoked a backlash from environmental campaigners, who feel that the Sri Lankan government’s lax regulations on shipping are consistently threatening the Sri Lankan coastline, sea life, and communities who rely on it.
The Sri Lankan Government, and the corporation which owns the ship, X-Press Feeders, have been sued by the Sri Lankan based Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a grass-roots organization which campaigns for environmental justice and the prioritization of ecological preservation. Currently, the organisation’s grievance with the X-Press tanker stems from the fact it was allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters despite the fact a nitric acid leak had already been detected weeks earlier on the 11th May. The ship was refused entry into ports in Qatar and India on these grounds, but eventually granted access to enter Sri Lankan waters, where an on board fire subsequently broke out on the 20th May. The decision by the Director General of Merchant Shipping to allow the ship entry has been heavily criticised, as claims by Professor Wijegunawardena, lecturer at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh, indicate that INTERPOL had already warned a plethora of countries across South East Asia about the crossing of two ships containing toxic chemicals, with one of them speculated to be the X-Press Pearl. This claim makes it even more probable that the Sri Lankan authorities knew the dangers of allowing the ship to attempt to dock at Colombo – yet access was still granted.
The CEJ states its concern not just for the possible oil spill that could devastate the coastline, but the leakage of many toxic chemicals which the ship was transporting. Though the entirety of the shipping container’s contents has not yet been disclosed, CEJ correspondents have so far identified that drums containing significant amounts of Methanol, Nitric Acid and Sodium Methoxide were amongst the cargo. In such quantities, these substances could pose severe threats to sea life and coastal water toxicity levels by threatening to cause a ‘chemical soup’. This crisis is not a one off either. In the CEJ’s petition, governmental negligence has been linked to a wider pattern of events, namely the fire on board the crude oil ‘super tanker’, the MT New Diamond, which occurred approximately 38 nautical miles from Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline, less than nine months ago on 3 September 2020. Fortunately the ship, which was sailing en route from Kuwait to India, was prevented from spilling its cargo of 300,000 metric tonnes of crude oil after a large-scale intervention from both Sri Lankan and Indian military personnel. Despite the prevention of an oil spill, the disruption caused by the MT New Diamond cannot be dismissed; the crisis caused fishing bans, as has now been enacted due to the threat of X-Press Pearl leakages. Since the 29th May, fishing has been banned along 50 miles of the worst affected Sri-Lankan coastline, with fishing union chiefs estimating that over 4,300 families have so far been affected by the ban, with many facing destitution.
Sri Lanka lies at the centre of the major international shipping lanes connecting East to West, and recent investments over the past decade have allowed it to flourish into a maritime hub. The port of Colombo is the only deep-water commercial port of South-East Asia which can accommodate the new generation of super tankers, and this could go some way to explaining why the Sri Lankan authorities allowed the ship to enter the country’s waters. The Sri Lankan government’s commitment to environmental precautions in regards to shipping trade legislation is lax. In its latest assessment of the situation, the CEJ explains how authorities have not signed the 1996 and 2010 international ‘Hazardous and Noxious Prevention and Control’ conventions, and this precludes Sri Lanka from being eligible for compensation when its waters are polluted by external shipping merchants.
Government authorities have themselves said they will take legal action to gain compensation from the ship’s owners, which further highlights the need for laws which protect the environmental interests of the Sri Lankan coastline. As the CEJ remarks in its petition to the Supreme Court, despite Sri Lanka’s glowing reputation as an international maritime hub, it stands “way behind in the implementation of international conventions and laws” which threaten the ecological balance of the coastline, and the inhabitants who rely on the sea to sustain them. The fate of the X-Press Pearl currently remains undecided, and thus does the extent of the environmental damage caused by the ship’s sinking. Only time will expose the extent of the damage; what’s already clear is the need for stricter laws which prioritize the protection of the sea life and the livelihoods which depend on it, above profit.
Sidenote: Information has been gathered directly from the Centre for Environmental Justice in the form of statements, statistical information, and the official petition documents through private correspondence between WILD Magazine and the CEJ.
About the Author: Lizzi Philokyprou is a 3rd Year Philosophy and History Student at the University of York.