An incident off the coast of Sri Lanka, is a cautionary tale of how small incidents can add up, resulting in massive environmental disasters.
It has been nearly four months since X-Press Pearl, a container ship caught fire and burned for nearly two weeks, before it sank on 2 June, as a salvage crew tried to tow the vessel away from the coast of Colombo.
The ship was carrying 25 tons of Nitric acid - a highly toxic chemical used to make fertilizers, along with other hazardous substances that have been declared "Not Otherwise Specified”, in its 1486 containers. NOS could range from toxic chemicals to heavy metals. The adverse effect this may have on maritime ecology is still not fully understood.
The sinking of the ship also resulted in a discharge of 80 tons of plastic pellets, a raw material used in the manufacturing of plastic items. Huge amounts of carcasses as well as plastic pellets have been washed ashore on every beach of the island, the rest of which will remain in the water and continue to endanger marine life.
At the heart of this major incident, are two, seemingly insignificant incidents.
1. Despite the fact that Nitric acid is a declared hazardous substance, it is believed that the Nitric acid loaded on the ship was inappropriately packed and this resulted in the leak.
2. Upon detecting the leak in the Arabian Sea, thousands of kilometers away from Sri Lanka, the ship's crew contacted two ports - Hazira on the west coast of India and Hamad in Qatar - requesting to offload the affected containers. Both ports denied the request, stating that they neither had the expertise nor facilities to handle nitric acid. And the ship made its way to Sri Lanka.
25 tons of highly corrosive, poisonous, and combustible liquid eventually combined with other goods on board, resulting in a catastrophic fire and the ultimate destruction of the vessel, with unknown implications for the surrounding ecology and economy.
This incident raises too many questions in our minds.
The most important one is, how in this day and age, something as basic as proper packaging of a highly dangerous substance could be overlooked.
Secondly, ports that can otherwise let massive container ships like the X-Press Pearl dock, still do not have the facilities to counter the problems such vessels might face. This brings us to our next question. What if such an incident were to happen again? Would the authorities be able to wash their hands off their responsibilities?
It is frightening to think that such a major catastrophe was the result of mere carelessness. Something that could have been avoided entirely, if due care was given.
This tragedy presents several concerns, ranging from the increasing tonnage of cargo ships to the readiness of port authorities throughout the world to cope with such issues in the future.