Sri Lanka to sue Singapore owners of blazing ship, launches probe

  • 30 May 2021

The MV X-Press Pearl, a container ship sailing with a Singaporean flag and carrying cosmetics and chemicals including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, was anchored off Colombo when a container caught fire.

Sri Lanka's Air force personnel remove debris washed ashore from the MV X-Press Pearl on a beach in Colombo, May 30, 2021. ( AP )

Sri Lankan authorities say they will sue the owners of a Singapore-registered cargo carrier which has burned for 11 straight days off the island's west coast and caused some of its worst-ever marine pollutions.

Police on Sunday said a criminal investigation was also launched into the blaze aboard the MV X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 25 tonnes of nitric acid and a huge amount of plastic raw materials.

The intense fire, still burning at the rear of the 186 metre (610 feet) vessel, has destroyed much of the cargo, some of which also fell into the Indian Ocean.

Tonnes of micro-plastic granules have inundated the South Asian nation's famed beaches, forcing a fishing ban and sparking fears of ecological devastation.

Sri Lanka's Marine Environment Protection Authority said it met with attorney general Sanjaya Rajaratnam on Sunday to plan legal action against the owners of the vessel, its crew, as well as insurers.

"We have gone through the details and will be taking action against those responsible," MEPA Chairman Dharshani Lahandapura told reporters in Colombo.

She said they were, however, yet to make an assessment of the environmental damage, but she believed it was the "worst marine pollution" Sri Lanka has ever suffered.

The affected seafront is known for its crabs and jumbo prawns as well as its tourist beaches.

READ MORE: Sri Lanka grapples with plastic waste from smouldering container ship

Smoke billows from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl off Sri Lanka's Colombo Harbour, May 29, 2021.(AFP)

Fire on ship under control

Sri Lanka's navy chief, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne, who was also at Sunday's talks with the island's chief prosecutor, said the X-Press Pearl was still on fire, but the blaze was now under control.

"It will take a few more days to completely extinguish the fire," Ulugetenne said, adding that his assessment was that there was no danger of the vessel breaking up.

But he ruled out towing it away from Sri Lankan waters until the fire was completely put out and experts examined the vessel for any structural weaknesses.

International salvage firm SMIT is leading efforts to douse the flames and is being assisted by Sri Lanka's navy and the Indian coastguard.

The three-month-old ship was heading to Colombo from Gujarat, India. It had previously visited Qatar and Dubai and was due to go to Malaysia and Singapore after calling at Colombo.

The 25-member crew, who have already been evacuated from the ship, will be questioned on Monday, police said.

Authorities said last week they believed the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak that the crew had been aware of since May 11.

"The captain and the crew were in quarantine, but health authorities have told us that we can question them from tomorrow," Ajith Rohana, a police spokesperson, said.

"We have already sent samples of polluted seawater and burnt debris from the vessel for a forensic report."

The ship's owners, X-Press Feeders, said the vessel's hull remained intact and there was no damage to its fuel tanks.

READ MORE: Sri Lanka faces 'worst beach pollution in history' as ship burns

Sri Lanka's Air force personnel remove debris washed ashore from the MV X-Press Pearl, on a beach in Colombo, May 30, 2021(AFP)

Fisheries affected

Fishermen have been banned from the 80-kilometre (50-mile) stretch of coast, where tonnes of plastic pellets ha ve washed up, sparking a massive clean-up effort.

Fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera said the government would compensate them for their expected losses.

At least 4,500 fishermen were affected at the fishing and tourist resort of Negombo, officials from the Roman Catholic church in the area said Saturday as they pleaded for financial aid.

Fisherman Lakshan Fernando, 30, said people feared the plastic waste could destroy mangroves as well as the corals where fish breed in the shallow water.

"No one is able to say how long we will have the adverse effects of this pollution," Fernando said.

"It could take a few years or a few decades, but in the meantime what about our livelihoods?"

Priest Sujeewa Athukorale said on Saturday that there were also fears of reduced demand for seafood from the area over contamination fears.