Maritime operations, perils at sea with X-Press Pearl as a case study

28-06-2021

The Company of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka (CMM) is a member of the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA). Having conducted a webinar on the subject, it wishes to enlighten the general public on the numerous aspects of shipboard operations in general and required preparedness towards possible maritime emergencies in our waters such as the incident of MV X-Press Pearl. With a membership of over 350 Ship Captains, some employed on ships, both local and foreign, and some in the shore-based shipping industry, both in Government organisations and the private sector, the wealth of professional knowledge, skills and the experience of members instrumented the CMM to join the OPA to conduct a webinar on the subject of ‘MV X-Press Pearl Disaster’ – in the backdrop of the X-Press Pearl debacle and, present an unbiased professional view on the matter when so many versions with inaccuracies, some very blatant unfortunately, were circulated widely. X-Press Pearl is a three-month-old ship of 186 metres in length and 34.8 m breadth and 17.9 m depth with 37,000 MT carrying capacity and ability to accommodate 2,700 TEUs. Vessel operated by X-Press Feeders of Sea Consortium Group and was employed in a regular service connecting Singapore, Tanjung Pelapas (Malaysia), Jebel Ali (United Arab Emirates), Port Hamad (Qatar), Hazira (Gujarat, India) Colombo and Port Kelang on an approximately 30-day round voyage This was the third time the X-Press Pearl called Colombo port in her short life of three months. The ship’s crew had noticed a leak from a container after leaving Jebel Ali in UAE for port Hamad in Qatar. It was identified to contain Nitric Acid. In Hamad, Qatar, the Ship’s Captain had requested the port to arrange the discharge of the container which had been refused owing to unavailability of resources. Port of Hazira, another port in Gujarat, India, refused to discharge the said container for reasons unknown. Perhaps due to insufficient time. Finally, she arrived in Sri Lanka, Colombo anchorage as the next scheduled port and not as ‘a port of refuge’. What happened thereafter is widely publicised but with numerous speculations. Let us explain the standard practices. When a vessel calls a scheduled port of call on her regular service, she would comply with normal port entry formalities which includes notice of arrival, International Ships and Ports Security (ISPS) Clearance – a responsibility delegated to the Navy in Sri Lanka, declaration of cargoes, stores (items for ship’s use), and crew effects. As for cargo, there could be much more detailed information declared by the ship’s operator, 48 hours before arrival, when possible, through electronic means or through the local agent, including a declaration of dangerous goods. Having complied with such formalities and, agents having attended to required advance payments to Port Authority and/or to the applicable container terminal where the vessel would be berthed, she would be listed in the schedule of berthing. On arrival in the vicinity of the port, the vessel would be either berthed directly if the scheduled berth is available or instructed to anchor at a designated anchorage outside the harbour, awaiting the berth. It must be pointed out that carriage of dangerous cargo onboard ships is a very common occurrence. Identifying the dangers involved in the process, the entire membership of states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the body of the UN on maritime matters, has agreed to adopt and comply with a set of mandatory requirements named the IMDG Code (International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code) which deals with all the dangerous cargoes carried on ships in packaged form the world over. They are listed by their UN numbers and categorised into nine different classes, namely Explosives, Gases, compressed, liquefied or dissolved under pressure, Flammable Liquids, Flammable Solids or Substances, Oxidising Substances (agents) and Organic Peroxides, Toxic and Infectious Substances, Radioactive Substances, Corrosives and Miscellaneous Dangerous Substances and Articles, and describes the methods of packing, labelling, segregation and emergency procedures in case of fire or spill. No country can handle dangerous cargo in packaged form without adhering to the said IMDG Code. The responsibility of shippers is to ensure that the cargo is correctly packed, labelled, separated and segregated from possible contaminants or reactors as described in the Code. The smaller, individual packages of cargo are then packed into containers, if to be shipped by container ships. If a container is loaded with dangerous cargo, what other cargoes can be carried in the same shipping container is described in the Code and to be strictly complied with. Thereafter, how different shipping containers with dangerous cargoes can be loaded on to a vessel with proper segregation, etc., as described in the Code is to be adhered to and pre-planned by the cargo planners of the shipping line or on behalf of the shipping line by a competent party like the terminal operators. What dangerous cargoes can be carried together in the same hold, what must be carried in separate holds or what cannot be carried even in adjacent holds, what has to be carried on deck, or what cargoes cannot be carried unless special safety and pollution prevention arrangements are available on the vessel, etc., are all described in the IMDG Code. The compliance with the provisions of the IMDG Code is to be ensured by the ship’s Master before loading any dangerous cargoes on the ship. Narration of the incident In the case of the X-Press Pearl, with a leaking Nitric Acid container, it seems that the Master of the ship has acted prudently in reaching out for shore assistance from the subsequent ports of call when there was still no fire on board. Then, the following events unfolded in Colombo. On arrival Colombo on the 19th midnight or 20th early hours, the vessel had been asked to drop anchor north west of Colombo harbour as her scheduled berth at the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) was not available until the late evening of the 20th. During that stay at anchor, on the 20th morning, the local agent of the vessel was supposed to have informed the Harbour Master of Colombo by email that there was a leaky Nitric Acid container onboard which needed reworking upon berthing. A little after that the Master of the vessel also was supposed to have informed the Port Control by VHF about a probable fire in cargo hold no. 2. Subsequently, the Master had reported that the ship’s crew released Carbon Dioxide from the fixed firefighting system of the vessel into the no. 2 cargo hold in an attempt to douse the fire. On the 20th afternoon, SLPA and Navy, in consultation with other relevant agencies had sent a team to inspect the situation on board the vessel in order to decide the next course of action. By late evening the same day, the ship had again reported a fire onboard and requested assistance upon which the Ports Authority and SL Navy dispatched the fire-fighting tug and some other vessels which apparently managed to contain the fire in about two hours by applying foam. Boundary-cooling had continued throughout the night. The wind had been very strong and the sea very rough by this time. In the prevalent weather, SLPA had deployed two more tugs in turns to assist with the boundary-cooling. Unfortunately, by the 21st, the fire had reignited, which SLPA managed to keep under control until 22nd evening, when a specialised tug operated by the salvage company that was appointed by the vessel owner arrived on the scene and took over the firefighting. On the 24th, extremely strong winds that prevailed by then had rendered the fight against the fire an impossible task. On the 25th morning, explosion of some containers had taken place and the ship’s crew and some members of the salvage party who were onboard at that time decided to abandon ship. The vessels deployed by SLPA carried out the evacuation. In the next few days, the fire engulfed the entire ship, destroying practically all containers on deck and the accommodation too. The heat emanated by the fire and the explosions that happened on board may have impacted the structural integrity of the vessel. Why didn’t the ship owner make arrangements to discharge the leaking container long before the matter got escalated to the level it finally did? What sterner actions could the Master have taken to mitigate the situation with a leaking chemical container to ensure the safety of the crew, the vessel and the environment? Could the ship’s agent in Colombo have done something differently to obtain earlier assistance for the vessel, had he known the exact situation on the vessel? What could the Ports Authority have done if such a request was made? What level of a situation could Sri Lanka have handled with available resources? Does Sri Lanka have a proper response plan to handle the kind of maritime emergencies the country would have to face in its journey to become a maritime hub as envisaged? Does Sri Lanka have the necessary regulatory and legal framework to deal with such maritime emergencies? These seem to be some of the questions that are circulating in the public domain in the aftermath. Unfortunately, the answers to these questions can be rather complex that need a holistic understanding of all the circumstances, taking into account the practicalities, limitations, available resources, other possible risks involved in handling such matters and both internal and external laws and obligations. However, in that context, it is our opinion that the following areas need immediate attention and actions following the lessons learnt from not only the X-Press Pearl incident but the New Diamond, MSC Daniela and numerous other incidents that may have happened in and around Sri Lanka. Recommendations Establish a responsible party to deal with maritime emergencies under the existing or re-enacted Merchant Shipping Act. Revamp the existing Merchant Shipping Act. Bring the Merchant Shipping Secretariat and Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) under one Ministry making their functions more defined but cohesive. Under the revised Merchant Shipping Act, define the roles of the connected agencies as applicable in maritime affairs and defining and delegating the roles of the Ports Authority, the SL Navy, the SL Coast Guard, the National Aquatic Resource Agency (NARA), the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the SL Customs, and Immigration, etc. Identify and document the emergency response roles of other agencies such as the SL Air Force, the SL Air Port Authority, any other local authorities and the relevant private sector organisations such as the Colombo Dockyard, the salvage and towage companies, other service vessel operators and service providers, and suppliers, etc. Encourage private sector to have suitably trained emergency response and salvage teams and equipment that can be enlisted in an emergency because, maintaining such resources by the Government alone will not be economical. Have carefully considered and laid down mechanisms for the immediate mobilisation of abovementioned resources and services in an emergency, including the reward mechanism to follow naturally. Ensure that proper legal status of all international conventions that have been ratified by Sri Lanka and the relevant regulations are gazetted. Become a party to the important IMO Conventions like the Salvage Convention, Wreck Removal Convention, Bunker Convention, Search and Rescue Convention and Hazards and Noxious Substances Convention as soon as possible and properly legalise them. Have an effective and responsible communication mechanism to conduct the dissemination of appropriate and accurate information as required. It is paramount to enhance the reputation of the country as a capable maritime nation which in turn helps Sri Lanka grow as a nation.