Sri Lanka seeks US$40 million in damages over Singapore-registered ship fire

In this Friday, June 11, 2021, file photo, Sri Lankan navy soldiers collect plastic residue washed ashore from the fire damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is seeking an interim claim of US$40 million from the operator of a fire-ravaged cargo ship to cover the cost of fighting the blaze, officials have announced. - AP

COLOMBO, June 12 (AFP): Sri Lanka is seeking US$40 million in damages from the operator of a ship that left massive pollution when it caught fire off the country's west coast, officials have announced.

Ports and shipping minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena said an interim claim had been lodged with X-Press Feeders, which controls the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl.

The vessel has been submerged in seas off Colombo since June 2 after burning for almost two weeks and releasing tonnes of plastic raw materials that swamped local beaches.

Sri Lankan environmentalists have called it the "worst marine disaster" in the country's history.

"In addition to this (claim), we will also seek reimbursement of the cost of putting out the fire," Abeygunawardena said, adding that the full damage to the environment was still being assessed.

Sri Lanka has sought help from Australia in studying the impact on the local marine economy, which has been hit by a fishing ban imposed since the disaster.

Fisheries minister Kanchana Wijesekera said the ban along an 80-kilometre (50 miles) stretch of coastline was lifted on Saturday except for in the immediate vicinity of the wreckage.

"About 20,000 families of fishermen were affected by the ban," Wijesekera said. "Many of the beaches have been cleared of plastic waste from the ship."

Officials said about 1,200 tonnes of plastic pellets and other debris scooped from the beaches were being stored in 45 shipping containers.

On May 20 the X-Press Pearl reported an onboard acid leak and caught fire just as it was due to enter the Colombo harbour.

The fire was put out after 13 days, but the vessel's stern hit the bottom of the shallow sea when a tug attempted to move it to deeper waters.

Two onboard explosions saw several cargo containers fall into the Indian Ocean and plastic raw material later smothered the western seaboard of the island.

"We will take another two weeks to remove all the piles of plastic waste we have collected. Only 1,200 tonnes has been stored and a similar amount is yet to be removed," an official involved in the clean-up said.

Sri Lanka is also investigating an oil slick just north of the Colombo port to see if it is a leak from the wreckage.

Operator X-Press Feeders said an inspection of the wreck found no oil leaks from the ship's fuel tanks, but water in the area had become discoloured since the vessel sank.

X-Press Feeders has deployed representatives from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation and Oil Spill Response to monitor for any oil spill and help with the clean-up of beaches.

Sri Lankan environmentalists last week sued the government and the ship's operator for allegedly failing to prevent the disaster. - AFP
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