Are there connections between MV X-Press Pearl fire to what happened in the Great Barrier Reef?

By Anton Jayakody 
Although the oceans as well as the land can be divided into millions of different ecosystems, the interconnections between them have ensured the existence of each other. This is because the destruction of one ecosystem could be the beginning of the destruction of another.
Oceanic Biosphere including Ocean Ferns and various microorganisms, which cover 71% of the earth’s surface, play a vital role in maintaining the ocean’s biosphere. Also, a significant amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. Because of this phenomenon the balance of the ocean is an important factor to conserve all ecosystems.
There are a number of physical and chemical parameters that affect the protection of ocean equilibrium. These include the pH value of the ocean water(acidity), the amount of dissolved oxygen (BOD) in ocean water, the number of solid particles in ocean water, the amount of salt, the number of heavy metals, the number of radioactive particles, and the temperature.
The purity of ocean water is an important factor for oceans to thrive, in order to protect the earth’s ecological balance. However, in the manufacturing process, pollutants of all the parameters are being added to the ocean to damage the ocean’s equilibrium. The ocean has become a dumping ground for waste in the manufacturing process.
Millions of marine lives have died and are dying due to marine pollution in the world. To understand how much it is, 33%, or about a third, of the marine life currently living in the oceans are listed in the Red Data Book by the I.U.S. C. N. No successful studies have been conducted on microorganisms living in the ocean and their role either.

International Conventions on Marine Pollution

Following the end of World War II, with the intervention of the UN on ocean pollution, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC, Later abbreviated as IMO) enacted the Ocean Charter on Oil  for maritime affairs in 1959, reaching an agreement on chemicals, dead wastes, garbage and other pollutants.
It has been in operation since 1973. The statutes and conventions relating to the laws on marine pollution are created by this IMO. Also, the Maritime Law, enacted by the United Nations in 1982, covers marine pollution and maritime territory within a legal framework. IMO is drafting various statutes on marine pollution up to today.
Even if a country signs these charters and treaties, they must be incorporated into the constitution of that country or legislated for their legitimacy. It is also an exile to get some money. Sri Lanka has signed more than 10 such charters, but their content has not been included in the legal framework of the country.
Due to the fact that the shipping routes connecting the East and the West are located below Sri Lanka and nearly 300 ships pass through it every day, the country’s laws should include seafaring laws signed to investigate and prosecute maritime pollution caused by those ships. There have been several such accidents in the last few decades, and in the past, there have been a number of major maritime environmental damages. Foremost among these is the massive environmental destruction caused by the X-Press Pearl.

M.T. New Diamond Ship

Approximately 700 million gallons of oil are added to the world’s oceans each year. About 20-25% of this is collected again. The rest is spread as layers of oil on the surface of the ocean. Oil layers on the surface of the ocean break the connection between the ocean surface and the atmosphere. As a result, the ocean’s equilibrium is disrupted by the lack of sunlight coming into the ocean, causing depletion of oxygen in the oceans.
These oil layers remain for a long time until they are destroyed by the oxidation process in the air by oxygen and sunlight. Due to this, various biological systems are destroyed. Animal species such as various birds and insects are also destroyed. Australian authorities say the Great Barrier Reef, which added significant value to the Australian national economy, died a few years ago. The main reason for this was the pollution caused by oil.
About 300 ships ply the seas south of Sri Lanka every day. One of them was the MT New Diamond oil tanker which was swept off the coast of Sri Lanka on September 3, 2020 due to a technical fault. It contained 270,000 metric tons of crude oil. The ship’s fire did not damage the oil tank, but the oil spilled into the ocean. To extinguish the fire, 4,500 kilograms of the chemical super resin had to be dropped. It is said that in the end only the money spent on putting out the fire was recovered by Sri Lanka.

M.V.B.B.C. Naples 

Filled with uranium hexafluoride UF6, M.V.B.B.C. Naples arrived at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota on April 21, 2020 due to a technical fault en route from the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to China.
Uranium hexafluoride is a radioactive isotope of uranium 235 required for nuclear power plants or atomic bombs. (Yellow cake) These are separated by uranium-235 radioactive isotopes by rapidly rotating cylindrical machines.
Uranium deposits contain about 0.3 % of the radioactive isotope uranium 235. The enrichment of uranium hexafluoride up to 4% is used to make atomic bombs, which are used as fuel for nuclear power plants.
If uranium hexafluoride is exposed to the atmosphere, it will spread easily in the atmosphere because it is highly volatile. It also spreads easily in water. This is very detrimental to the survival of all living things. Decreased red blood cells in animal species, severely affects the kidneys, skin, lungs, liver and other organs are outcomes.
In the event of an accident during the transportation of such hazardous radioactive material, such vessels are prohibited from entering the port due to the potential catastrophe. There are several conventions on the transport of nuclear waste or radioactive materials, some of which our country has also signed. In such dangerous situations, taking the vessel M.V.B.B.C. Naples into the Mahinda Rajapaksa port in Hambantota is a very dangerous act.

X-Press Pearl 

On May 20, 2021, the Express Pearl with 1,486 containers anchored outside the Port of Colombo. It was reported to contain 25 tons of nitric acid, a large quantity of molding plastic, cosmetics, about 300 metric tons of heavy fuel, caustic soda, sodium methoxide, methanol and other chemicals.
It is believed that it contained mercury as well as other heavy metals. All of these are considered environmentally destructive hazards. Many of these undergo thermal decomposition when reacted with water. The heat generated makes it easy to catch fire, and if water is used to control a fire, it helps the fire to spread further.
Prior to its arrival at the Port of Colombo, it was reported that the vessel had sailed to the port of Hamad in Qatar and the port of Hazira in India, claiming that there was a nitric acid leak from a container and the ports had sent off the vessel stating that they did not have the expertise to repair it. However, on May 20, smoke was billowing and it caught fire. A large number of containers fell into the sea, some of which exploded.
The plastic spread across the ocean and piled up on the beach. Sri Lanka’s largest maritime environmental disaster occurred. The substance that the containers were carrying must be disclosed in order to assess possible environmental degradation and to make decisions on the course of action to be taken. It is unfortunate that so far it has not been formalized. The containers were sinking with the hazardous material in them. Containers can decompose over time or be punctured by some other process that can cause great damage. These sunk containers are no different from time bombs.
It is reported that fiberglass was entangled in a fishing net in the Negombo Lagoon. It would be even more concerning if fiberglass used for industrial and laboratory use were transported. These break up into tiny strands of ocean water, causing severe damage to the human eye and causing great damage as it travels through the interior of the body. Therefore, not only swimming in the sea but also getting into the sea can be detrimental. A large number of fish can die due to obstruction of the respiratory process by entanglement of these fiberglass in the gills of sea organisms.

What will happen in the future? 

If heavy metals are continued to add to the seawater, it would increase the number of solid particles in seawater, posing a challenge to the survival of microorganisms. Furthermore, this would affect the survival and growth of species who survive by filtration of water such as oysters, starfish and other microorganisms and reproduction of corals. This can create an uninhabitable environment for all migratory fish.
Waters with low acidity carried with the waves destroys coral reefs in some small areas. The ingestion of plastic and micro-plastic particles into the fish causes the fish to die, lose growth and reproduction, and to move out of the uninhabitable environment. Sri Lanka is among the first five countries which are disposing plastics and microplastics into the ocean.
The Express Pearl vessel’s plastics and the formation of micro-plastics can inactivate the microbial process and cause large numbers of organisms that depend on them to disappear from these environments. If any project in the country expects the stability of the entire environment consisting of different ecosystems through a system of governance that underestimates the environment and does not care about marine pollution, it is a mirage.
With about 300 ships passing by daily, it is also a mirage to hope to reduce marine pollution or protect the marine environment from the 73-year-old system that has been trampling on its ability to be used for economic development. In this context, it is timelier to re-read the Red Indian leader Seattle’s vision of the environment.
It goes without saying that setting a market price for the environment without realizing its value and setting a price for the environmental destruction that takes place is not done for the purpose of protecting the environment or the future existence of a country.
(The writer is a senior geologist with decades of experience and has authored numerous research articles on mineral resources in various media.)

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