Beginning of the End
By Eunice Ruth
Even though the Government and other organisations try to reduce its impact in various ways, the X-Press Pearl disaster turned out to be a persistent issue with massive amounts of pollutants released into the environment.
While marine disasters are not a new issue in Sri Lanka, the impact of X-Press Pearl incident ranks higher than previous ones.
According to ‘Maritime Adversities around Sri Lanka (1994-2021)’, a research report compiled by the Pearl Protectors Organisation, Sri Lanka acts as a prime maritime hub in the Indian Ocean in terms of location and connectivity, changing global trends in shipping and trade and preferential trade access. The report stated that a total of 20 major maritime adversities (excluding ship strikes) have occurred in Sri Lanka within a period of 27 years, from 1994 to 2021. However, among them, more than 50 per cent of the incidents have occurred in the last five years.
Ashoke Weerakoon, a scientist at National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) said the X-Press Pearl disaster has increased air pollution along with the release of chemicals including hazardous and noxious substances such as bases and acids into the ocean. In addition, a large amount of plastic pellets was also dumped into the water. Out of the pollutants found in the oceans today, approximately 80 per cent are plastics. Typically, plastics in the ocean degrade with a year but not completely. During the degradation process toxic chemicals like polystyrene and BPA are released, contaminating the water.
Plastic pellets or nurdles are a raw material used in manufacturing plastic items, mainly single-use plastic items. Different types of nurdles produce various compositions of compounds in various colours. However, the majority of them are white in colour and are similar to fish eggs. They are also a chief source of micro-plastic pollution in the oceans. A nurdle weighs 20 mg and due to its smaller size and round shape, they’re often mistaken by marine species for food, who either die from ingesting nurdles or pass the plastics up through the food chain. Nurdles can also absorb other chemicals over time, and once swallowed, can contaminate the food chain with high concentrations of toxins. In Sri Lanka, where fish are a main source of protein, this problem poses an immediate health concern.
Coordinator of Pearl Protectors, Muditha Katuwawala said three containers, each carrying a little over a billion nurdles, were dumped into the ocean from the X-Press Pearl. Accordingly, it is estimated that more than 3 billion nurdles could have been deposited in the ocean, and along with the shipwreck, more plastic deposits are to be expected.
Food supplies are adversely affected when animals are poisoned by toxic substances and foreign particles such as nurdles. Animals are exposed to plastics mostly though ingestion and entanglement, where ingestion is more frequent than entanglement. Most marine species mistake plastics for food. Several research reports show that more than 260 different species of vertebrates and invertebrates ingest plastics or are entangled in plastics or plastic products, leading to more than 400,000 deaths of marine mammals.
Micro-plastic particles absorb toxins when in water and become more contaminated than the water around it. When they are eaten by fish the chemicals can bio-accumulate in their cells and tissue. Later, when we consume the contaminated fish, the chemicals trapped in their bodies can leach into our system leading to various health issues and even cause cancer in the case of heavy metals.
So far, due to the recent fire, many turtles, fishes and other marine animals have died due to the chemical reactions and plastic indigestion. Plastic waste mostly affect sea turtles and other species whose main food are jelly fish because they often confuse discarded plastic bags for jelly fish. Similarly it is common for sea birds to confuse plastics with cuttlefish and fish to mistake them for their natural prey. Ingesting plastic waste can obstruct a bird’s digestive system or reduce its digestive ability, leading to starvation, malnutrition and eventually, death.
Meanwhile, coral reefs are also very vulnerable to damage from nurdles and chemicals. Re-growing or restoring corals damaged from maritime disasters cannot be replaced immediately artificially as they take decades to restore naturally.
Clean up operations
In order to clean the ocean, the containers needs to be removed immediately. However, pellets and nurdles cannot be removed from the ocean entirely and their impacts are long-term. They cannot be removed using manual methods and need specific tools to be extracted from the ocean. The Pearl Protectors are currently working on finding suitable equipment to remove the nurdles and are discussing with experts to come up with a solution.
“It took about 8,000 volunteers and three months to clean up the beaches in Hong Kong which were polluted with pellets. Currently, due to the travel restrictions in the country, utilising resources are really difficult and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) along with the tri-forces have already started using backhoes to remove them from the seashore,” said Katuwawala
Massive efforts are underway to clear Sri Lanka’s beaches polluted with nurdles that have washed up from the X-Press Pearl. No one is able to say how long we will have the adverse effects of this pollution and sometimes it could even take a years or a few decades. Meanwhile, the general public should be educated regarding the marine pollution caused by the disaster and its environmental and health impacts. Locals have been advised not to touch anything washed ashore with their bare hands and clean-up crews are required to wear protective gear when handling the waste.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka needs to rethink its contingency plans to face future disasters as it currently has only a limited number of resources. On the other hand, oil spills are very harmful to marine life especially for species that live on the water’s surface. Oil destroys marine birds’ ability to repel water and the insulation ability of marine mammals. In the event of an oil spill, affected wildlife need to be found, stabilised, cleaned and rehabilitated properly before they are released back to the ocean all of which require special training and equipment.
The Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008 MEPA and the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) of Sri Lanka, provides a framework for the prevention and mitigation of oil spills for different stakeholders to be followed in the event of a spill to prevent or minimise harm to marine and coastal environment within the territorial sea and even in high seas where a spill can potentially harm Sri Lanka.
“With the density of ships passing through our waters is expected to increase further, if Sri Lanka develops proactive strategies for maritime adversities, in terms of resources, monitoring, and policy, rather than relying on reactive solutions, Sri Lanka would be able to successfully mitigate them by protecting our seas and sustaining millions of livelihoods that depend upon them and ensuring a sustainable maritime industry that will aid Sri Lanka to grow into a prime maritime hub and even extend our support and services to regional adversities,” said Katuwawala.