Oil tanker fire in Sri Lanka’s rich waters underscores need for preparedness

Authorities in Sri Lanka are seeking millions of dollars in damages after a weeklong firefighting operation to put out a blaze on board an oil tanker in its waters that are also home to a wealth of marine biodiversity.

sri lanka marine life
Fishes in Pigeon Island National Park in Sri Lanka. The country's waters have a rich biodiversity, which would be impacted by oil spills. Image: binzend, CC BY-SA 2.0

Authorities in Sri Lanka are seeking millions of dollars in damages after a weeklong firefighting operation to put out a blaze on board an oil tanker in its waters.

Some of the fuel oil from the MT New Diamond leaked into the sea but was quickly contained, and none of the 270,000 tonnes of its crude oil cargo leaked or caught fire, averting what could have been a major environmental disaster.

With the ship now stabilised and awaiting permission to dock at an available port to offload the crude, Sri Lankan authorities have filed charges against the captain and a claim for $2.4 million from the ship’s owners for the firefighting and pollution prevention efforts.

“This is just a preliminary claim and Sri Lanka will also demand a security to cover compensation for possible environmental impacts due to the oil fuel leakage,” Dharshani Lahandapura, head of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), told Mongabay.

If the ship capsized, that would have been one of the worst marine environment disasters to occur, considering the amount of oil it was carrying. We are lucky that the crude oil had not spilled into the ocean from MT New Diamond tanker.

Dharshani Lahandapura, chairperson, Marine Environment Protection Authority 

A team of experts has been tasked to assess the environmental damage, but a comprehensive assessment is expected to take some time, Lahandapura said.

“If the ship capsized, that would have been one of the worst marine environment disasters to occur, considering the amount of oil it was carrying. We are lucky that the crude oil had not spilled into the ocean from MT New Diamond tanker,” he said. “We consider this an eye-opener for Sri Lanka and identify our need to strengthen its capacities to address major oil spills.”

The fire began Sept. 3 in the engine room of the MT New Diamond, which is registered in Panama and owned by the Greek company Porto Emporios Shipping Inc., while it was in waters off Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. One crew member died in the fire, which was eventually put out on Sept. 11 by a joint team from Sri Lanka and India.

Environmental and economic impacts

Sri Lanka sits on a busy stretch of the Indian Ocean, with 200 to 300 ships passing it daily. Much of the traffic consists of oil tankers carrying crude from the Persian Gulf to East Asia.

Sri Lanka’s coastal belt consists of several important and sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs, seagrass beds, estuaries, lagoons, and beaches where turtles frequently nest. The ocean around Sri Lanka is also a rich habitat for marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, so the potential impact of an oil spill would be disastrous.

“The marine mammals have to surface for breathing, so if they come up through an oil slick, they end up inhaling the toxic substance, considered the biggest risk of an oil spill to marine life,” Asha de Vos, a marine biologist at conservation group Oceanswell, told Mongabay.

Marine mammals can also be exposed to crude oil through direct contact with skin, eyes, mouth and blowhole, or indirectly by ingesting it through their food.

An oil spill would also hurt the economic activities of coastal communities, where about 2 million Sri Lankans depend directly on fisheries for their livelihood. More than 80% of hotels in Sri Lanka are also built along the coast, which would further amplify the economic impact of an oil spill.

Sri Lanka has experienced a number of oil spills in the past. In 2006, the MV Amanat Shah, a freighter carrying timber, sank near the southwestern town of Koggal, resulting in 25 tonnes of fuel oil spilling into the water and affecting a 13–kilometer (8-mile) stretch of the coast. MEPA estimated the damage from that spill at more than $5 million. Other spills occurred in 2007 (the Marine Sedna, which spilled more than 4 tonnes of fuel oil), and in 2012 (the MV Thermopylae Sierra, which spilled about 20 tonnes of fuel oil). Oil leaks have also occurred during instances when ships are taking on or offloading fuel.

Addressing oil spills

Set up under the Marine Pollution Prevention Act, MEPA is the top government body responsible for preventing, controlling and managing marine pollution in Sri Lankan waters. The agency also has the authority to implement the Sri Lanka National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCOP) in case of a spill. The plan includes provisions to mobilize support from institutions such as the navy, coast guard, and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).  MEPA is also in the process of upgrading its oil spill contingency plan to include chemical spills, to be added to the national plan.

NOSCOP divides oil spills into three categories: those in tier I spills are relatively small spills of up to 50 tonnes; tier II range from 50 to 100 tonnes; and tier III is for spills of more than 100 tonnes, which require international support to address. Environmental emergencies can be declared for tier II or III spills, A.J.M. Gunasekara, MEPA’s deputy general manager, told Mongabay.

Gunasekara said regional preparedness is important in addressing the risk of spills, given Sri Lanka’s proximity to India, the Maldives and Pakistan. India is the best-equipped country in the region to respond to maritime accidents that can lead to large-scale oil spills. Retired vice admiral Shekhar Sinha, the former head of the Indian Navy’s Integrated Defense Staff, said India is always ready to respond to distress calls stemming from maritime accidents. He also suggested a robust framework under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to deal with issues that affect countries in the region.

Pollution costs

International conventions and maritime law already cover how to apportion the cost of pollution from oil spills, according to maritime lawyer and legal scholar Dan Malika Gunasekara, from the International Max Planck Research School for Maritime Affairs in Germany.

“A country can claim pollution damage caused by a ship, as well as the cost of preventive measures,” he told Mongabay. “This is a highly technical process. Sri Lanka should also revise its Marine Pollution Prevention Act to get it updated in accordance with the international maritime conventions. The law was last updated in 2008.”

Muditha Katuwawala, a conservationist with Pearl Protectors, a local group promoting marine environmental protection, told Mongabay that Sri Lanka also needs to upgrade its capability to fight oil spills without delay. He emphasized the importance of continuous monitoring of marine pollution and the ability to act swiftly to prevent damage to the environment.

Katuwawala cited the case of an oil slick that spread off Wellawatte township in the capital Colombo in June 2019. Authorities were unable to trace the slick to any ship. “We expand ports and plan to become a maritime hub, but this requires higher levels of monitoring capacity,” Katuwawala said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.


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