20 JUNE 2021
More than two weeks after the containership X-Press Pearl began sinking off Sri Lanka, the owners of the vessel have confirmed that the vessel has finally settled to the bottom. The sinking of the burnt-out vessel complicates an already challenging salvage situation with predictions that it could be months before the vessel can be removed. In the meant time, the clean-up efforts and legal investigation continue.
In the latest development, Sri Lankan authorities reported that they have arrested the local port agent for X-Press Feeders in Colombo. Arjuna Hettiarachchi, chairman of the local agency, had been summoned by the Criminal Investigation Department to provide a recorded statement over the events leading up to the fire on the boxship. The investigation continues to focus on when the dangerous chemical leak was discovered and if it was properly reported to authorities. At the beginning of the week, the CID also arrested the captain of the X-Press Pearl. He was released on bail and ordered not to leave the country.
A spokesperson for X-Press Feeders reports that the remainder of the crew from the vessel has now cleared a COVID-related quarantine. After testing negative for the virus, the crew was moved to local hotels, but the two seafarers injured during the evacuation from the burning vessel remain under hospital care.
Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Urban Development and Coast Conservation, Nalaka Godahewa, speaking to reporters in Colombo provided an update on the situation at the wreck site. He said the government wanted the vessel removed immediately, but that they had been advised by the salvage crew that the current weather conditions would make salvage very difficult. The vessel is currently sitting in the anchorage outside Colombo at a depth of 21 meters. The plan is to put navigation markers at the wreck site until the hulk can be removed.
“Due to the exposed nature of the anchorage to the prevailing South Westerly Monsoon, it is likely that the wreck removal can only start after the SW monsoon subsides,” advised X-Press Feeders. The company however has committed to keeping a caretaker crew from the salvage company on site to monitor for debris or any additional signs of pollution.
Currently, a gray sheen is seen on the water emerging from the vessel. The vessel’s operators are saying it could be related to the cargo after it was exposed to the seawater and so far, none of the water samples have shown signs of oil pollution. The salvage team speculated that the bunker fuel onboard was incinerated when the fire consumed the vessel, and that residue might have evaporated. International experts arrived in Sri Lanka to assist in assessing the scope of the environmental disaster, supporting the teams that had already been assisting in the cleanup.
In the next phase of the cleanup, the salvage team will use side-scan sonar to look for containers that fell overboard during the fire or debris from the ship.
With monsoon season typically lasting till September, the expectation is that the X-Press Pearl will remain on the bottom for months to come.