X-Press Pearl was anchored 9.5 nautical miles off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, when a fire erupted onboard after an explosion on May 20 due to a nitric acid leak. Some websites had reported that the X-Press Pearl had been denied entry into Hazira Port in India and the Hamad Port in Qatar before arriving at the Colombo Port. However, X-Press Feeders had stated on its official website that all of these claims were baseless. X-Press Pearl – Update 6
The Sri Lanka Ports Authority, the Sri Lanka Navy, the Air Force, and the Indian Coast Guard made strenuous efforts to put out the fire despite the adverse weather due to the onset of southwest monsoons, which ultimately failed. The ship was carrying a consignment of hazardous chemicals (1486 containers) containing 25 tons of nitric acid, dust urea, frilled urea, cosmetics, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets, epoxy resins, caustic soda, sodium methoxide, lead ingots, ethanol, and aluminum smelting by-products.
Sri Lanka has demanded the operator of the Fire-stricken X-Press Pearl ship to pay a $40 million interim claim for emergency response costs. Dr.Nalaka Godahewa, State Minister Urban Development and Coast Conservation declared that an expert committee is required to seek compensation for this. As per Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), four United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) experts has visited Uswatakeyyawa beach on June 19, 2021, for a preliminary discussion as the first phase in the damage assessment and recovery process associated with the X-Press Pearl Catastrophe.
Can a price be set for this catastrophic ocean pollution as a responsible government? Instead, the Sri Lankan authorities should have diverted or towed the ship into the deep sea and responded swiftly to put out the fire. Unfortunately, even though several international organizations have been established for maritime safety (Basel Convention,MARPOL 73/78), such catastrophes continue to occur.
Impact of X-Press Pearl On Marine Ecosystem
Adverse Affect Of Microplastic
The general public does not have much understanding of what microplastic is. They are only aware of the millions of plastic pellets that swamped along the pristine west coastline of Sri Lanka. Microplastics released into the sea from sunken ship causes more long-term severe damage than plastic pellets that washed ashore. The debris of the X-Press Pearl ship, lying half-sunken off 9.5 nautical miles away from the Colombo port, Spread rapidly across the western coastline (from Mannar to Galle) due to the onset of southwest monsoons. Consequently, a vast area of the ocean is being polluted.
Biologically, Shallow seas have the highest biodiversity; therefore, the ocean pollution caused by this tragic incident cannot be estimated. However, big fish, sea turtles, and other giant sea creatures will consume these plastic pellets, which might endanger their lives. Unfortunately, we witnessed such dead marine animals washed ashore in the impacted seas all around the island in the past few weeks. The number of marine deaths is reported to have increased in comparison to last year’s statistics. However, the consequence of small fish consuming microplastics is even worse.
Microplastics discharged into the sea can deposit in sea algae. Algae employ photosynthesis to produce organic food molecules from carbon dioxide and water by capturing energy from sunlight. Algae are at the bottom of the food chain, and because plants are almost non-existent in the oceans, the survival of nearly all marine life is heavily dependent on Algae. In addition, algae produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis; Algae is believed to provide 30 to 50 percent of the global oxygen available for respiration for humans and other terrestrial animals. Consequently, photosynthesis declines. This will lower the amount of oxygen released.
Algae is the primary food source for small fish; hence small fish have less food to consume. According to the Consumer Resource System, big fish will devour small fish that ingested microplastics affecting the entire food chain. Microplastics can potentially enter the human body through seafood consumption; therefore, this shouldn’t be tolerated; This is a severe environmental hazard.
The Effect Of Nitric Acid Mixing With Seawater
Cnidaria is marine invertebrate species that are responsible for the formation of coral reefs. Corals are classified as colonial organisms. They live and grow while connected to each other. Coral polyps (a relatively primitive form of cnidarians) release layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) beneath their bodies, which help form coral reefs. The average pH of the ocean is around 8.1. However, the pH of the sea lowers dramatically when nitric acid reacts with seawater. Coral polyps are a hypersensitive species. They would perish if the physical or chemical conditions of the sea changed even slightly. When nitric acid is combined with seawater, not only coral organisms perish, but also the coral reefs, which comprise calcium carbonate, dissolve swiftly. It also wreaks havoc on the vast biodiversity of coral reefs and may possibly lead to the depletion of our fish resources in that region in the future.
Seagrasses are flowering plants that live their whole lives underwater. These seagrasses can be found in Sri Lanka, particularly in the shallow sea of Mannar. Seagrasses require sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis; that’s why they can be found in clear, shallow water. They produce oxygen and energy through the process of photosynthesis. Seagrasses cover the seafloor densely, forming an ecosystem called seagrass beds, which provide shelter and primary production to an immensely diverse community of sea creatures. These seagrass beds could be lost entirely due to the excessive acidity of the sea caused by nitric acid. One of the major concerns was the 300 tons of bunker oil consumed as fuel for the ship. So far, neither Sri Lankan officials nor the ship’s operator has reported any signs of an oil spill.
The fishing community that lives along these coastlines, on the other hand, has been seriously affected. As a result of the MV X-Press Pearl catastrophe, over 7500 fishing families have lost their main source of income. Moreover, around 2000 families engaged in occupations including drying fish and fish netting have lost their livelihood.
A similar incident occurred in the eastern seas of Sri Lanka when the MT New Diamond oil tanker caught fire on September 3, 2020. The operator of the oil tanker based in Greece paid 442 million rupees as an emergency response cost in October. However, the total compensation of Rs.3.4 billion ($19.02 million) has yet to be paid. Rs.3.4 billion rupees is just a drop in the ocean compared to the damage caused to the marine ecosystem. Despite having faced similar incidents in the past, it is clear that the Sri Lankan government has done nothing to prevent such disasters.
MV X-Press Pearl has caused irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s ocean and the coastal ecosystem. Sri Lanka will have to deal with the crippling effects of this tragedy for years to come, regardless of who is responsible or who benefited from this calamity.