The United Nations on Sunday said the Singapore-flagged cargo vessel, which caught fire off the coast of Colombo last month, has caused “significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances", as the world body announced a team of experts to determine the full extent of the disaster and necessary follow-up action. The UN representative in Sri Lanka said international efforts are being coordinated to help in assessing the damage, recovery efforts and prevention of such disasters in the future.
“The UN is coordinating international efforts and mobilising partners to support Sri Lanka in addressing the disaster of the (cargo vessel) MV X-press Pearl, based on a request by the (Sri Lankan) government," said UN Resident Coordinator, Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. A team of oil spill and chemical experts from the UN and the European Union is working with Sri Lankan agencies to assess the impact of the disaster. The team comprises Stephane Le Floch from the France National Oil Response and Research Centre (CEDRE), Camille La Croix also from the CEDRE, and Luigi Alcaro from the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research.
The team will be led by Hassan Partow from United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts Global Support branch (Ecosystems Division). “An environmental emergency of this nature causes significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances into the ecosystem, this in turn threatens lives and livelihoods of the population in the coastal areas. Our efforts are intended to support assessment of the damage, recovery efforts and ensure prevention of such disasters in the future," Hamdy said.
The UN report aims to produce key findings and recommendations on short-term response measures and longer-term recovery planning. It will be submitted to the government. It will include technical advisory support, oil spill contingency planning, clean-up operations and environmental impact. Head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Darshani Lahandapura said the team’s assessment report would be used in making claim for damages from the company which owns the ship.
The cargo vessel, MV X-Press Pearl, was carrying a consignment of chemicals and raw materials for cosmetics from Hazira in Gujarat. On May 20, it caught fire near the port of Colombo. Apart from the 325 metric tonnes of fuel in its tanks, X-Press Pearl was loaded with 1,486 containers carrying about 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid.
Hundreds of litres of hazardous chemicals, plastic pellets were released into the sea as the vessel caught fire. Over 1,400 loaded containers fell into the sea. Environmentalists have dubbed it as one the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history.
Last week, Sri Lanka made an interim damage claim of USD 40 million from the owners of the cargo ship, through the Attorney General following a directive by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Russian Captain of the cargo vessel has been granted bail after he and his crew were questioned.
The travel ban imposed on the captain and his crew — in total 25 people of Indian, Chinese, Filipino and Russian nationality — will remain till further progress in made in the probe. Meanwhile, environmentalists have made it clear that the ship’s fire could cost the ecological system dearly.
Since the fire at sea, nearly 50 turtles and at least 5 dolphins have washed ashore dead. Though no direct connection has been made officially between the two events. Similarly, hundreds of large tar balls have drifted onto the beach of Phuket in Thailand since last week. Another unnatural occurrence post the fire, though the two event have not been connected officially.