Nitric Acid Cargo on X-Press Pearl Came from Iran

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 2 2021
Focus Nitric Acid Cargo on X-Press Pearl Came from Iran

The origin of the dangerous nitric acid cargo loaded onto the Singapore flagged X-Press Pearl vessel at Jabel Ali Port, Dubai, UAE was from Iran and many of the details pertaining to this cargo has been falsified and covered up by the Iranian company, Isfahan Chemical Industries (ICI) and a few other Iranian shipping agents, Ceylon Today reliably learns. 

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan 

Two containers, FSCU7712264 and GESU2837027, were loaded on board the ship MV Ronika on 29 April 2021, at the Iranian Port of Bandar Abbas. Each container had 25 tonnes of nitric acid. The ship left Iran a few days later and arrived in Jebel Ali on 3 May. Then the faulty container FSCU7712264 was loaded on the MV X-Press Pearl to be shipped to Jakarta, Indonesia. The Iranian companies allegedly lied about the origin of the cargo and concealed information. The MV Ronika is operated by Siri Maritime Shipping and it seems that it is owned by Mohammad Reza Rahbar Madani and Partners. 

The evidence has been revealed when Sri Lankan authorities are silent on updates of the probe on the X-Press feeder disaster that occurred at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). The details on the devastation on local marine life and other details have been kept classified, citing that the CID and the Attorney General's (AG) Department are handling it strictly. 

Most of the information is not with the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) according to sources and nothing has been shared with MEPA officials, Ceylon Today learns. It’s also bizarre that one of the experts in marine science and oceanography, Dr. P.B. Terney Preadeep Kumara, who served as MEPA's General Manager, quit from his post six months ago while he was needed for the ongoing probe. 

He was a Mediafriendly spokesperson who had disclosed information about previous marine disasters especially on the MV New Diamond. But it seems that he has been silenced on the X-Press Pearl matter. He is currently lecturing at the Ruhuna University and had apparently given up on investigating the X-Press Pearl disaster.

 Iran’s shipment caused havoc

 ICI is responsible for the faulty container that reached Jabel Ali. The ICI is part of the Chemical Industries Group of the Iranian Defence Industries Organisation which is sanctioned by the United Nations for its alleged involvement in Iran's ballistic missile programme. 

According to the Iran Watch website, ICI was designated by the Canadian Government in July 2010 as an entity contributing to Iran's proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities or to its development of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or their delivery systems; designation prohibits Canadian parties from providing goods or financial services to the entity or dealing in property held by the entity. 

The ICI has also been listed by the British Government in 2011 as an entity of potential concern for WMDrelated procurement, by the Japanese Government in 2011 as an entity of concern for proliferation relating to biological and chemical weapons and identified by the British Government in February 1998 as having procured goods and/or technology for weapons of mass destruction programmes (specifically missiles). 

According to Iran Watch's 2012 update, ICI was part of the Chemical Industries Group (CIDMG) of Defence Industries Organisation (DIO); military products include dinitrotoluene (DNT), hexal, hexogen (RDX), hexotol composition B and composition B4, nitrocellulose in gunpowder, high- and lownitrated forms, NSH52, PETN, plastic explosives, RDX compositions A3, A4, and A5, and trinitrotoluene (TNT) and many other products. 

The photos Ceylon Today obtained are of the containers on board the X-Press feeder and the nitric acid packets inside the containers. These photos were clicked while the fire fighters were dousing the blaze a few days before the ship sank in Colombo waters. The ICI reportedly ships large quantities of nitric acid regularly, which is an important source of income for developing new weapons programmes. Moreover, the same Iranian company hid from the shipper the poor state of the IBC (plastic container used to transport nitric acid) which began to leak as soon as the shipment left Iran. This catastrophe began from that point, according to the sources. 

Journey from Iran

 In March, Mavar Aye Cheshm Andaz Shipping, an Iranian company affiliated to the Emirati transport company Transvision Shipping, accepted a request made by the Iranian company Pars Tarabarto send two containers of nitric acid to Jakarta. Pars Tarabas was acting as a forwarder for Chemipakhsh Paykan, an Iranian company which exports the acid nitric produced by the ICI, a company belongingto Iran's military and industrial complex. The nitric acid was already packaged in Intermediary Bulk Containers (IBC). 

The fact that the IBC were in poor state was hidden from the shipper and cargo began to leak as soon as it left Iran. (See email). One of the emails dated 25 May 2021 under the subject ‘M.V. X-Press Pearl V. 21018E – Shipment of DG Container – FSCU7712264’ said, “As you are fully aware, on 11 May 2021, your Iran Office – As Forwarder PARS TARABAR INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING & FORWARDING AGENCY for actual Cargo Owner:-“Esfahan Chemical Industries, tendered a container said to contain nitric acid at BandarAbbas Port, (IRAN) for shipment to Port Klang, Malaysia. 

However, attempts to discharge the leaking container at Hamad, Qatar and at Hazira, India, were rejected by the port authorities. The nitric acid had leaked into cargo hold No. 2 where there are numerous Dangerous Goods containers, containing caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and methanol. Fumes had started to come out. Please advise the name, contact person and contact details of your insurers or P&I club in order to establish the communication to deal with the potential claim and/or security. 

Please note nothing in this and in our previous correspondence shall be construed as a waiver and all of our rights and owners’ rights are expressly reserved.” This email was sent to Iran’s Transvision Shipping and Pars Tarabar. During the transhipping in Dubai, Transvision Shipping observed nitric acid leaking from container GESU2837027, which was deemed to have been caused by an improper and defective packaging of the product. After an inspection, container GESU2837027 was grounded and only container FSCU7712264, containing a load packaged in the same conditions in Iran, was brought on board the MV X-Press Pearl on 11 May, headed for Jakarta.

 On the same day, a little time after having departed from the port of Jebel Ali, the X-Press Pearl's captain signalled to Transvision Shipping that a leakage had just been identified from container FSCU7712264 warning that around a litre of nitric acid would spread on the ship’s deck each hour, causing real damage.

 Despite the requests, the ports of Hamad in Qatar and Hazira in India did not accept the ship because they officially did not have the appropriate infrastructure and were unable to unload the container. The X-Press Pearl was forced to continue sailing towards Colombo. Colombo Harbour knowingly or unknowingly wanted to ‘fix’ the fire. 

It is suspected that Colombo Harbour was deliberately chosen because it had the necessary equipment to thwart the disaster. The nitric acid leak eventually started a fire on board the ship later leading to its sinking on2 June. In the meantime, on the 23 May, the content of the faulty container GESU2837027 was transferred into a new container WSCU8592772 in order to also have it dispatched. 

After the shipwreck, X-Press Feeders, considered as responsible by the Sri Lankan authorities, asked Transvision Shipping for explanations on its faulty container FSCU7712264. Transvision Shipping, with the complicity of Chemipakhsh Paykan, had apparently given false documents not showing any connections with Iran. 

A packaging certificate was also hastily written to satisfy X-Press Feeders' requests that nonetheless noticed inconsistencies and asked to be allowed to examine the containers GESU2837027 and WSCU8592772 stocked in the Port of Jebel Ali. Transvision Shipping did promise to respond favourably to that inspection request but simultaneously planned the repatriation of the container GESU2837027 to Iran to protect it from being looked at by X-Press Feeders.

 Finally, after having heavily insisted, X-Press Feeders was only able to inspect container WSCU8592772. On 24 June, another leak was detected by the Dubai ports authority from container WSCU8592772, into which the IBCs with nitric acid from ICI had been placed on the 23 May. This is strong evidence that the packaging originally made by the Iranian was faulty. It is unclear whether the Colombo Harbour Master knew all these before calling the ship to the anchorage. Fingers could be pointed directly at ICI, Chemipakhsh Paykan and Transvision Shipping as it is evident they have concealed information and lied. 

They lied about the origin of the product and they knew there was a serious problem but did not care. They could have done something – stop the export, report the problem to relevant authorities, repair the packaging – but they choose not to and now thousands of families and whole ecosystems are suffering. The Iranian companies are also responsible for the faulty packaging.

 It is unfortunate that the ship sank too quickly before all this information could be revealed. Iran was selling nitric acid for economic reasons. It is a lucrative business and export of such chemical products are common and are a major source of income for military industries looking to build and develop new and better missile systems. It is also evident that the Indian port did not know that the cargo was coming from Iran due to false information.

 Acting Head of the Disasters and Conflict Branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan in August said as per the UN Environmental experts, the slick is a visceral reminder of a slow-motion environmental disaster, one of the worst in the country’s history and a reminder of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up. The wreckage may be resting at the bottom of the sea peacefully, but the issues surrounding the blaze and eventual sinking of the ship has still not come to an end.

 The salvagers are continuing with the clean-up and pollution mitigation efforts with additional oil spill response assets have been flown in from Singapore following requests bythe UN-EU team based in Colombo. 

Although there are no confirmed reports of any bunker oil leak, representatives of ITOPF and Oil Spill Response continue to monitor a light silvery-grey sheen which has been seen emanating from the vessel with regular water sampling done around the wreck. As per UNEP, the ship’s cargo along with 25 tons of nitric acid and 348 tons of oil also contained up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years. – [email protected]

We don’t know where the Cargo came from – MEPA Chair Dharshini Lahandapura  

MEPA has also maintained that no information can be given mainly because the ‘case’ is ongoing. MEPA’s Chairperson was of the view that she cannot disclose information as to who is accountable for the disaster when the local agent who cleared the documents for the ship to enter Colombo Port, when it had been rejected by two other ports, was on bail. 

The CID will know the origin of the toxic cargo but MEPA does not know. She said that Iran had not disclosed that information to her. Litigation will be served soon and the AG’sDepartment is looking to book civil and criminal charges on the entire disaster. She pointed out that the civil case may explain the compensation and the cost incurred to the total disaster and that a criminal case would proceed simultaneously. 

We have hired an Australian legal firm to assist us after going through all the company profiles, she added. Regarding the ship’s recorder, she said that that too is ready with digital reports and they will be analysed. 

Thursday (30 September) was the Court hearing and she said the next hearing will be soon. “Due to the pandemic there is slim staff hence the procedurals are little slow,” she added. Of the 22 X-Press feeder crew, 12 have left the country while the rest are in Colombo she also said. When asked any clue as to who is responsible for the disaster, she added that it’s too early to disclose matters such as who caused it. ([email protected]

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 2 2021

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