Oil spill feared as turbulent weather continues | Sunday Observer
Fire on the X Press Pearl

Oil spill feared as turbulent weather continues

30 May, 2021

As the fire on board the container ship X Press Pearl raged due to adverse weather and the reaction of highly hazardous chemicals on board, the authorities said they expected the worst if the bunk oil started to seep into the sea or if the unstable ship would sink.

In the prevailing rough weather it would be futile to use booms to contain the spread, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) has already informed the Marine Pollution Prevention Authority.

“With the available data we believe the impact of the hazardous chemicals onboard the ship would be short term with sea water around the vessel turning acidic temporarily and possible acid rains due to the chemicals mixing with the atmosphere but if the bunker oil leaked into the sea polluting the marine ecosystem, the damage would be long term, “ Chairman Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Dharshani Lahandupura told the Sunday Observer.

The Singapore flagged container ship MV X-Press Pearl with 1486 TEUs, was carrying 56 containers of hazardous chemicals such as Nitric Acid, Caustic Soda and highly reactive and flammable chemicals such as Sodium Methoxide at the time. A widely used reagent in industry and laboratory, Sodium Methoxide when mixed with water forms corrosive and flammable substances.

The merchant vessel was anchored 9.5 nautical miles off the Colombo Port, waiting for a berth to unload the cargo when the fire started.

The brand new ship commissioned three months ago according to international media, was reportedly on its third voyage. While some reports said it was transporting the chemicals from the Indian port of Hazira other reports indicated the ship was denied entry to Qatar and India when the crew reported an acid leak from one of the containers.

The MPPA fear the biggest threat from the vessel would be the leakage of bunker oil. “The ship was loaded with 278 tons of bunker oil at the time the ship caught fire but some of it will be consumed by the blaze,” Lahandupura said.

The 25-member crew, made up of Russian, Indian, Philippine and Chinese were evacuated early on Tuesday. The vessel’s owner and operator is X-Press Feeders and the vessel can carry 2700 TEUs.

Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena who visited the Port following the incident said the chemicals on board MV X Press Pearl is suspected to have caused the fire.

Sri Lanka Navy, the Sri Lanka Air Force and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) tried to douse the fire initially but the chemicals and the rough weather coupled with strong winds fuelled the fire to intensify and spread, forcing the ship’s owner to seek international expertise and help.

The two injured crew members, both Indian, were admitted to Colombo National Hospital by the Sri Lanka Navy. One had suffered a fracture in the leg and the other minor injuries. The remaining crew has been quarantined in a hotel.

Lahandupura said they will take action to claim compensation after assessing the full extent of the damage to Sri Lanka which includes the marine life, beach and the cost for the fire fighting.

Asked if this ship posed a greater damage to the environment than the previous incident of a Panamanian registered oil tanker that caught fire off the Eastern coast, she said comparatively the damage from an oil tanker would be greater.

But the impact of MV X Press Pearl could be more than expected since the oil seepage cannot be contained due to prevailing rough weather.

A specialised team from the Netherlands had arrived in Sri Lanka to offer expertise in the coordinated effort while Indian and Singaporean tug boats had also joined-in the firefighting.

A Bell 212 helicopter of the Air Force dropped 425 kilograms of chemicals on the blazing ship on Wednesday.

The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) requested fishermen and the residents along the coastal stretch leading to Negombo from Colombo to be cautious and to refrain from picking contaminated debris washed ashore.

“They could be potentially harmful, some have explosive substances,” Pradeep Kodippili, Deputy Director DMC warned the coastal residents with specific instructions to protect the children.

The residents were warned against tampering with the debris and instructed to alert the police, the Tri-forces or contact the DMC’s 117 hotline. The police on Wednesday arrested six people who had defied these warnings.

Due to the damage caused by the fire it is estimated that 20 containers may have dropped to the sea by Wednesday and the crew or the rescue workers are yet to know if these containers were carrying harmful chemicals. A large oil slick was seen near the ship on Wednesday raising concerns if the ship’s oil were leaking into the sea.


The President has instructed the officials to pay special attention to minimise the spread of oil around the vessel in the event of an oil spill while remaining vigilant about the prevailing adverse weather condition. The President has also advised them to take into consideration the steps taken by other countries when managing similar disasters.

The Navy and other state institutions have already begun clearing debris off the coast.

Under the instructions of the President, the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) has already tested the water samples around the coastline. In addition, there had been discussions with the shipping company, insurance company and other parties over the future measures that need be taken in this regard.