A Sunken Cargo Ship Off the Coast Of Sri Lanka Remains a Chemical Time Bomb

Container ship explosion
Ceylon News 24
Colombo, Sri Lanka
A Sunken Cargo Ship Off the Coast Of Sri Lanka Remains a Chemical Time Bomb

With more than 29,000 metric tons of the 31,701.6 metric tons of cargo on board the Super Eco 2700 class container ship MV X-Press Pearl catching fire and sinking off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, yet to be salvaged, the danger of marine ecological pollution looms large and could be best described as a chain of time bombs beneath the ocean.

The sinking of the X-Press Pearl is said to be the worst marine ecological disaster in Sri Lankan history and was the hottest topic in the country at that time. Sixteen months on, the incident has been forgotten by most and hardly makes the news. The public is not aware that the worst is yet to come as 93.6% of the cargo is still beneath the ocean.

The irony is that the officials who know about the impending disaster are not taking any action to mitigate it. They know very well that the marine ecological disaster which took place in June 2021 is just the tip of the iceberg as the bulk of the cargo lies beneath the ocean.

This investigative report was compiled after extensive research and use of the Right To Information (RTI) as an eye opener because the Sri Lanka government continue to keep the public in the dark on matters relating to the incident. Namely the impending damage to the marine ecology and the delay in instigating legal action to claim compensation for the environmental damage and loss of livelihood caused.

The Singapore-registered container carrier operated by X-Press Feeders was on its third voyage and returning to her home port. The vessel was off the coast of Colombo Sri Lanka when a fire broke out on board on May 20, 2021 and burned for 12 days before sinking on June 2.

the burning cargo ship
The MV X-Press Pearl caught fire for 12 days before sinking on June 2, 2021 / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

Information obtained from the Sri Lanka Customs Department (SLCD), Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) through RTI confirms that there were 1,486 containers on board the vessel. Of these, 445 containers were laden with plastic and rubber, 120 containers with chemicals and related products, 81 containers with hazardous items such as nitric acid and caustic soda, and 568 containers with other miscellaneous items, while 272 containers were empty.

Information obtained from the MEPA revealed that 15 varieties of hazardous goods weighing 1809.3 metric tons and classified as International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) were stored in 81 containers which were on board. Most of the goods had been loaded on board in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and bound for Singapore while 68.2 metric tons classified as IMDG-4.2 and 29.5 metric tons classified as IMDG-9 were to be unloaded at the port of Colombo.

graphic showing weight of hazardous cargo on board
Data received from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency through the Right To Information request / Graphic Credit: Ceylon News 24.

Pollution of the ocean and shoreline

In a document obtained through RTI from MEPA, it was revealed that no government institution in Sri Lanka was aware of the exact quantity of cargo that made its way into the marine environment.

The July 2021 report of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) suggests that the 210 metric tons of methanol stored on the top deck of the ship would have been destroyed by the fire. It could also be assumed that part of the 9,700 metric tons of Epoxy Resin which was stored in 349 containers may have been destroyed by the fire or made its way into the ocean. Epoxy resin is not classified as hazardous but could be a threat to the marine environment. The total weight of cargo salvaged including the quantity of epoxy resin and methanol presumed to have been destroyed is 2029.64 metric tons.

MV-X-Press Press was launched
Of the 1,486 containers on board the vessel, many held harmful contents such plastic, rubber, chemicals and hazardous materials such as nitric acid and caustic soda / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

The UNEP report also suggests that the probability that all of the 348 metric tons of intermediate fuel oil (IFO) on board the vessel being destroyed by the fire was remote and that a considerable amount of fuel oil which was stored in tanks beneath the waterline of the vessel would have gone down with it. Director of the Center of Environmental Justice (CEJ) and environment scientist Hemantha Withanage believes that the fuel oil is bound to seep out of its tanks in the future.

graphical representation of cargo on board
Graphical representation of cargo on board MV X-Press Pearl (weight in metric tons) / Graphic Credit: Ceylon News 24.

The MEPA report confirms that more than 1,680 metric tons of debris including a large number of nurdles had washed ashore. Resole Marine which had been entrusted with the salvage operation has stated that an assortment of debris including burnt containers had been salvaged from 347 locations but do not mention the weight of the debris salvaged. In reply to a query made through RTI Sri Lanka Customs Department confirmed that 139.64mt of debris had been salvaged.

Withanage confirmed that most of the debris was washed onto the Sarakkuwa beach opposite which the vessel had sunk.


The harm caused to the marine ecology by the 1,680 metric tons of nurdles which were stored in 87 containers on board MV X-Press Pearl was immense. With each nurdle weighing a mere 0.02 grams, calculations show that there were more than 84 billion nurdles in the 87 containers. It is not known how much spilled out when the ship sank and how much went down with it.

Headshot of Hemantha Withanage, director of the Center of Environmental Justice
Hemantha Withanage, director of the Center of Environmental Justice / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

Information and maps obtained from the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) through RTI, confirm that plastics, microplastics, heavy metals, sediments and plankton were among the debris collected from the beaches between Negombo and Kalutara and also within the Negombo Lagoon.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides and industrial chemicals cause extensive harm to the environment as well as human health.

The locations from where nurdles and other waste material was salvaged
The locations where nurdles and other waste material were salvaged / Credit: Ceylon News 24, map data from OpenStreetMap and contributors.

A report published by the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) points out that the nurdles which have not been salvaged will pollute the shorelines in the northwestern, western and southern Sri Lanka and may even become a regional hazard as they may reach the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia in time to come. Director of the CEJ Hemantha Withanage said that laboratory tests conducted in the Czech Republic at the request of IPEN and CEJ have confirmed that the samples collected from the affected beaches mentioned above showed a high concentration of bisphenol and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Withanage quipped that the samples collected were more or less a chemical soup which contained many active ingredients.


Workers collecting debris strewn on the beach
Workers collecting debris strewn on the beach / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

Perils to human health

Withanage said that it would take over 500 years for plastics to degrade. “If we assume that 1000mt (metric tons) of the 1680mt (metric tons) of nurdles on board sank with the vessel, in time to come the nurdles will become minute particles of microplastics and are bound to enter the human body in many ways. The authorities have not taken such perils into consideration when claiming compensation. It is possible that 10 or 15 years from now these microplastics through chemical reactions within the human body become cancerous growths. No one is going to link the cancerous growth to the X-Press Pearl. It would be prudent if the people who salvaged goods washed ashore or consumed fish and other marine products harvested in the area after the accident submit themselves to laboratory tests periodically,” he added.

Loss of marine life

Ushantha Mendis, Secretary of the Galle District United Fisheries Association said that the quantity of fish that perished due to the X-Press Pearl disaster cannot be estimated. He said that all stakeholders engaged in the fisheries industry on the island faced the immense loss of livelihood as a result and are yet to receive adequate compensation.

Information obtained from MEPA shows that the carcasses of 350 marine turtles, 41 dolphins and 12 whales were reported after the X-Press Pearl disaster. According to environmentalists, the actual figures are much higher.

Sri Lanka's waters are home to five of seven species of marine turtles in the world: leatherback, olive ridley, loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles. The ecological damage caused by the sinking of the X-Press Pearl resulted in the death of a large number of marine turtles and also caused the loss of their habitat and breeding grounds. Kamal Jayantha Soysa, Chairman of the Friends of the Ocean Society confirmed that the number of marine turtles that nest on the southern coastal belt had decreased drastically after the X-Press Pearl sank.

Headshot of Kamal Jayantha Soysa, president of the Friends of the Sea Society
Kamal Jayantha Soysa, president of the Friends of the Sea Society / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation investigated the death of marine life reported. A team of scientists from the University of Padova Italy, together with the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Peradeniya, the Department of Wildlife Conservation and MEPA conducted autopsies on 16 turtles on December 5 and 6, 2021.

The autopsy report which was made available only after the RTI Commission ordered the Department of Wildlife Conservation (on August 4, 2022) and MEPA (on August 31, 2022) to do so, shows that most of the turtles were deemed to be in optimal nutritional condition. It also states that a viscous black material had been found in the esophagus of two animals while in one animal, a similar substance was found in the trachea lumen.

As data obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation shows that there was an unusual increase in the number of dead marine turtles reported in the months following the disaster confirming that the sinking of the X-Press Pearl was the cause for the remarkable increase in deaths of turtles and other marine creatures.

Graphical representation of number of dead marine turtles
Data shows a large increase in marine turtle deaths in 2021 / Credit: Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Law of carriage of goods by sea 

The carriage of hazardous goods by sea has to conform with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) requirements and also the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Preventing pollution of the marine environment by ships from accidental and operational causes is regulated by MARPOL 73/78, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and chapter VII of SOLAS.

In addition to international regulations the Marine Pollution Prevention Act, No 35 of 2008 provides for the prevention, control and reduction of pollution in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka or any other maritime zone, its foreshore and coastal zone of Sri Lanka. It is administered by MEPA. According to the above act, the owners or operators of a vessel are held responsible for any pollution caused by the vessel.

Have the laws been enforced?

No government institution has instituted legal action against the owners or operators of MV X-Press Pearl as of date. Information provided by MEPA indicates that MEPA in consultation with the Attorney General’s Department is still in the process of preparing the necessary documents. In reply to a query made on August 2, 2022 through RTI the Attorney General’s Department admit that the documents to initiate legal proceedings are still being prepared.

 A 42-member committee has been appointed to assess the damage caused by MV X-Press Pearl. A member of the committee, Professor Ajith de Alwis of the University of Moratuwa said that the committee had drawn up the first Environment Assessment Report and added that the committee were looking into and assessing around 35 different aspects. He said that assessing the damage caused by MV X-Press Pearl was a challenge as it was the first time that such a large quantity of nurdles had made its way into the environment. Furthermore, some of the nurdles were burned, and it is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large quantity of chemicals was accidentally released into the environment. Professor de Alwis confirmed that the committee would finalize the assessment report soon.

Maritime law expert, Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera, said that the Sri Lankan authorities have delayed taking legal action with regard to the damage caused by the X-Press Pearl. “It is imperative that we make a proper assessment of the damage and provide proof to justify the claim. As the damage has to be assessed in a scientific manner, the responsibility is with MEPA,” he said. Gunasekera added that the 3.8 billion rupees received is grossly insufficient as the actual damage caused would be determined by the 42-member committee and would definitely run into billions of US dollars.

Headshot of maritime law expert Dr. Dan Malika
Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera, a maritime law expert / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

The insurance that could be claimed for damage caused by shipping vessels is normally around 5 to 7 billion US dollars. The Sri Lanka government should have requested for an undertaking from Protection and Indemnity Insurance (P&I) that they would indemnify an amount determined by the court. Gunasekera said that to his knowledge the Sri Lanka government has not obtained such an undertaking and requested the government to produce documentary proof if they have.

Chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority Darshani Lahandupura said that there were two ways in which legal action could be instituted. One was a criminal case that the Attorney General’s Department should file claiming compensation for polluting the ocean, for which the assessment of the ecological damage was not necessary. Proving that the ocean was polluted is sufficient to instigate criminal action. Nevertheless, MEPA forwarded a report on the environmental damage to the Attorney Generals’ Department soon after the incident.

Headshot of Darshani Lahandapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority / Credit: Ceylon News 24.
Darshani Lahandapura, chairperson of the Marine Environment Protection Authority / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

Lahandapura said that the second way was civil action on which the criminal action would have a bearing. But she said that civil action could be avoided by negotiating with the shipping company and agreeing upon the compensation.” It is the Attorney General’s Department, who have to enter into negotiations as advised by the Australian firm and agree on the compensation,” she added.

Challenges in assessing the damage

Information obtained from MEPA shows that as of February 25, 2022, the vessel insurers P&I Club London had only paid a sum of 3.8 million US dollars (1,316 billion rupees) to the government of Sri Lanka. Of this, as of May 31, 2022, a sum of 2.54 million US dollars (903 million rupees) had been spent on clearing shorelines of debris, assessing damage, and managing the disposal of waste.

The 3.8 million US dollars received is a fraction of the interim payment of 40 million US dollars requested by the Sri Lanka government in June 2021. Sri Lanka is yet to submit its claim for the environmental damage and has contracted Australian law firm Sparke Helmore Lawyers to advise the government in this regard. The irony of it is that Sparke Helmore Lawyers are also consultants to the vessel’s insurers P&I Club London. This conflict of interest was brought up at the Committee of Public Enterprise (COPE) meeting held on March 11, 2022.

Workers collecting debris strewn on the beach
The sunken cargo ship contained thousands of tons of environmentally damaging materials / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

MEPA Chairperson Lahandapura said that the law firm was contracted only to obtain clarification if the assessment of the damage MEPA had arrived at was correct. She said that many people were unaware of the purpose the advisory firm was contracted for.

CEJ Director Hemantha Withanage said that the X-Press Pearl caused the world’s worst chemical pollution of marine ecology. He added that Sri Lanka should have initially demanded at least 10 billion US dollars as compensation and could have justified the assessment. Withanage also pointed out the need for international regulation on the carriage of nurdles.

“A majority of Sri Lankans were not aware of the severity of the incident. One is to wonder if they were made to think so. The damage caused is simply not the damage which is visible to the naked eye. The chemicals and other goods that sank with the vessel and the material that was salvaged may cause much greater damage in the future” Withanage said.

On being asked, Professor Ajith de Alwis said that one is yet to find out what has become of the 700 or more containers that were stored on the bottom decks of the vessel. He said that the committee had recommended the manner in which these should be salvaged if and when salvage operations get underway.

Workers collecting debris strewn on the beach
Debris washed ashore on the beach / Ceylon News 24.

MEPA chairperson Lahandapura confirmed that damage caused by the X-Press Pearl was still being assessed. She said MEPA was also estimating the damage that may occur within the next 5 to 10 years and include it in the claim. She emphasized that it was not possible to arrive at a figure without being able to substantiate the amount but indicated that the claim will be a substantial figure.

She also said that plans were underway to salvage the vessel and hoped to accomplish the same within the next seven or eight months.

By taking all the above findings into consideration it is evident that as of date, the Sri Lankan authorities had failed to take appropriate legal action to obtain reasonable compensation for the ecological damage caused by the X-Press Pearl. The ecological damage caused by the incident was the worst in Sri Lanka’s history and the marine environment may never be back to normal again. It is hoped that the authorities will hasten to enforce the law and take necessary action to protect the people, animals and marine life from the impending disaster.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on November 4, 2022 in Ceylon News 24 and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: The sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl is considered one of the worst marine ecological disasters in Sri Lanka's history / Credit: Ceylon News 24.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories