ECONOMYNEXT – The CEO of X-Press Feeders, the shipping company that owned the stricken X-Press Pearl responsible for what could prove to be Sri Lanka’s worst ecological disaster, has apologised for the incident but warned that assessing total damages is a long process and would have to wait till the wreck has settled on the seabed.
X-Press Feeders CEO Shmuel Yoskovitz told the Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA) on June 03 that a leak in one of the doomed ship’s containers was the most probable cause of the fire that engulfed it. He also confirmed that the vessel’s crew had been aware of the leak, but both Qatar and India had denied permission to unload the container before the fire broke out, CNA reported.
“It’s very hard to assess what caused the fire. There were many commodities onboard the vessel. There was one container leaking. It [was the most probable] cause, but we’re not a 100% sure,” Yoskovitz said.
“I would like to emphasise this. There are many incidents like that at sea, and sometimes terminals and ports are able to help, and sometimes not. There is an international maritime dangerous goods convention [according to which] the crew had handled this leak,” he added.
Apologising and expressing his deep regrets to the Sri Lankan people for the damaged caused to livelihoods and to the environment, the X-Press Feeders chief executive said Sri Lanka’s ongoing COVID-19 lockdown has stood in the way of mobilising people to clean up the beaches that are now polluted with millions of nurdles that may be contaminated.
“[The damage] is now being sassed, but we need to bear in mind that this will be a long process,” he said, adding that total damages would have to be assessed after the wreck has settled on the ocean floor about 21 metres below sea level.
“We have already started engaging with the Sri Lankan authorities, both the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) and the Sri Lankan Navy,” he said.
Commenting on Sri Lanka’s ongoing cleanup efforts, involving thousands of soldiers, Yoskovitz said the company has contributed heavy equipment for the purpose.
“We need to remember that Sri Lanka is under lockdown and it very hard to mobilise people. We’re thankful both to MEPA and Navy for helping to mobilise people. We have contributed from our side some heavy equipment to clean up the beaches, but we cannot engage with the Sri Lankan people. It is the responsibility of the authorities because of the lcokdwon,” he said.
Yoskovitz said X-Press Feeders has been engaging with the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) since the fire broke out.
“So far – this is true for Singapore 5pm June 04- there has been no oil spill detected,” he said.
Asked how much the fire and the sinking of the ship has cost the company, Yoskovitz said: “It’s very hard to assess the cost currently, but we’re insured and the direct financial burden on X-Press will be very limited.”
Noting that the aft of the ship has already sunk and is lying on the seabed about 21 metres beneath, Yoskovitz said: “The forward part is 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.”
“Currently the salvors are monitoring the wreck and making sure that any debris, or God-forbid any oil spill, will be detected quickly and handled accordingly,” he added.
Asked if poor packaging was the cause of the fire, Yoskovitz said shipping companies have for years been trying to raise awareness on the matter.
“You need to remember that we load containers that are signed and sealed. We don’t open them. We’re dependent on the declaration and the professionalism of our shippers that they will pack their containers correctly and they will declare them correctly,” he said.
“Over the past few years and throughout history there have been countless incidents of fires and not to mention leaks which happn probably on a weakly basis that we don’t hear about because no catastrophe has occurred,” he added.