The container ship X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers, including 25 tonnes of nitric acid, when it caught fire on May 20 off the west coast of Sri Lanka. It burned for 13 days before the blaze was finally put out on Tuesday.
In an interview with CNA on Thursday, vessel operator X-Press Feeders’ CEO Shmuel Yoskovitz said his company has enlisted environmental experts, such as the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, to monitor the situation.
It has also started engaging and working with the Sri Lankan authorities, and contributed “some heavy equipment” to help with the clean-up of beaches.
“I’d like to express my deep regrets and apologies to the Sri Lankan people for the harm this incident has caused to the livelihood and to the environment of Sri Lanka,” Mr Yoskovitz said.
Need to wait until wreck settles
Mr Yoskovitz told CNA that the aft portion of the container ship has sunk and is “now laying on the seabed at (a depth of) about 21m”. The ship’s forward section is also “slowly sinking”.
“To assess the real situation, we will need to wait for the wreck to settle on the seabed and then see what really can be done,” he said.
No oil spill yet
“Currently what the salvors are doing, they are monitoring the wreck and making sure that any debris or god forbid, the oil spill will be detected quickly and handled accordingly.”
He added that as of 5pm on Thursday, “there has been no oil pollution detected”.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst marine ecological disaster. Millions of plastic pellets from the ship’s containers have fouled the country’s beaches and fishing waters, forcing a fishing ban and a major clean-up involving thousands of soldiers.
Compensation, a long process
The Sri Lankan government has said it would seek compensation for the incident.
Asked how much that could amount to, Mr Yoskovitz said: “This is now being assessed but we need to bear in mind that this will be a long process ... first of all, to see when this incident will be over and then to assess the total damages.”
It is “very hard” to estimate any cost or damages at the moment, he added.
“But we are insured. The direct financial burden on X-Press (Feeders) will be very limited,” he said.
Denied permission by Qatar & India
Sri Lankan officials have said they suspect the fire was caused by a nitric acid leak, which the ship’s crew had been aware of since at least three weeks ago.
Mr Yoskovitz confirmed that the crew had been aware of the leak, but said they were denied permission by both Qatar and India authorities to unload the leaking container before the fire broke out.
Providing a timeline of events, he said the container was first loaded on the ship on May 10 at the Jebel Ali port in Dubai.
“It was discovered leaking while alongside Hamad, which is a port in Qatar. When it was detected, we asked to discharge it. The port authorities did not allow it since they had no manpower or the equipment readily available to discharge," he said.
“Afterwards, the vessel sailed into Hazira, a port in India, where we requested the Hazira port to allow us to discharge the container. Again it was rejected, more or less for the same reasons as it was in Hamad,” he said.
The X-Press Pearl then arrived in Sri Lankan waters on May 19. Smoke was detected the next morning.
“Until that time, there was only leakage from one container, which was handled and controlled by the crew,” Mr Yoskovitz told CNA.
Hard to assess cause of fire
Asked if the incident could have been avoided if the leaking container was allowed to be discharged at the ports in Qatar and India, he replied that “it is very hard to assess what caused the fire”.
While the leak from one container was “the most probable cause”, he stressed that the company is “not 100 per cent sure”.
“There are many incidents like that at sea. Sometimes, terminals and ports are able to help, and sometimes not," the chief executive added.
He said that the ship’s crew attended to the leak in accordance with guidelines from the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Convention.
Mr Yoskovitz was then asked how inadequate packaging of chemical contents could cause such fires, and if this is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.
He said that shipping companies have been trying to raise awareness about this issue for the past few years and there have been "countless incidents of fires".
"Not to talk about leaks which happened probably on a weekly (basis) which we don't hear, thank god, because a catastrophe has not happened," said the chief executive officer.
“You need to remember that we load containers that are signed and sealed and we don't open them. We are dependent on the declaration and the professionality of our shippers that they will pack the containers correctly and that they will declare them correctly," he added.