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EU Sends Team to Assess "Significant Damage" From X-Press Pearl Wreck

x-press pearl
File image courtesy Sri Lankan Navy

Published Jun 20, 2021 9:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

A UN-backed team has arrived in Sri Lanka to help local officials estimate the extent of the environmental damage from the burning and sinking of the container feeder X-Press Pearl, which went down earlier this month off Colombo. The sinking released tonnes of plastic pellets and burned debris into the marine environment, prompting a massive shoreline cleanup operation on pristine local beaches.

"An environmental emergency of this nature causes significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances into the ecosystem," said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. "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."

The team is providing technical advisory support to the Sri Lankan experts on oil spill contingency planning, clean-up operations and environmental impact assessment, drawing on international best practice. They will work closely with Sri Lankan counterparts from the Marine Environment Protection Authority, Ministry of Environment, Central Environmental Authority and other agencies. 

The delegation is sponsored by the European Union, and it includes Dr. Stephane Le Floch and Dr. Camille La Croix from the France National Oil Response and Research Centre (CEDRE) and Mr. Luigi Alcaro from the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA). "I’m pleased to announce that the EU, in collaboration with the UN, is able to deploy environmental emergency experts to support Sri Lanka in addressing, and more importantly limiting, the impact of the MV X-press Pearl disaster,” said Thorsten Bargfrede, chargé d’affaires at the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The EU has also provided satellite imaging support for spill detection through the European Union Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), along with a donation of about $240,000 to pay for cleanup gear and PPE. 

Separately, the UK government’s Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) is providing laboratory services to analyze water monitoring samples and advise teams on the ground in Sri Lanka. 

X-Press Feeders, the vessel's operator, confirmed last week that the wreck is now resting fully on the seabed at a depth of about 21 meters. Until recently, the bow was still afloat, creating challenges for the salvage response. Caretakers salvors are on site on a 24-hour watch to address any possible debris and report any spill, should one occur. 

A grey sheen is still coming from the vessel, the operator confirmed, and discoloration of the sea in and around the wreck is still present. This change in color has been visible since the vessel went down on June 2, but has not been formally classified as a "spill." 

According to local media, at least 30 turtles have washed up dead since the sinking, and fish filled with plastic granules (nurdles) from the cargo have been found on shore. Last week, one dead whale beached in Jaffna, on the island's northern tip; additional study will be required to determine which (if any) of these fatalities are related to the vessel casualty.