X-Press Pearl sinks 9.5 miles off Sri Lanka

A near worst-case scenario after the fire on the X-Press Pearl  (IMO 9875343) appeared to have come to pass yesterday after it was confirmed that the vessel had sunk. The aft of the vessel has settled on the sea bed.

The X-Press Pearl had been on fire for almost two weeks before the blaze was put out earlier this week, and there were optimistic noises that the vessel was structurally sound and that an attempt would be made to tow it further out to sea. Now, however, there are fears that the hundreds of tonnes of fuel oil on board could eventually leak into the sea. The vessel has 325mt of bunker fuel aboard and it is likely that the focus will shift to removing that environmental threat from the ship as soon as possible.

“The ship is sinking. Salvors are trying to tow the ship to deep sea before it sinks to minimise the marine pollution but the rear area of the ship has drifted,” Sri Lanka Navy spokesman Captain Indika Silva told the BBC.

Environmentalist Dr Ajantha Perera told the BBC that “with all the dangerous goods, the nitric acid and all these other things, and the oil in the ship, if it’s sinking it will basically destroy the whole bottom of the sea”.

The coastal stretch near the city of Negombo is home to some of Sri Lanka’s finest beaches. Already some containers and container contents had washed ashore, leading to the public  being banned from access. Also, local fishing operations had been halted since the vessel caught fire.

Officials have lodged a police complaint against the captain of the ship, who was rescued along with other crew members last week. Sri Lanka police on Tuesday June 1st said that they had questioned the captain and the engineer of the ship for more than 14 hours.

A court has issued an order preventing the captain, chief engineer and the additional engineer from leaving the country.

The wreck of the X-Press Pearl has settled onto the sea floor in 21 metres depth after water flooded the engine room. Even though the aft of the vessel had settled on the seabed, the forward portion of the ship was still afloat. This had led salvors to hope that they could attach a tow line to move the ship away from the Sri Lankan coastline. That hope now appears dashed. X-Press Feeders said yesterday that “X-Press Feeders, operator of the container ship X-Press Pearl, regret to report that, despite salvors successfully boarding the vessel and attaching a tow wire, efforts to move the ship to deeper waters have failed, and the ship’s aft portion is now touching bottom at a depth of 21 metres. As of 3pm local time, the forward area of the vessel remains afloat, with smoke coming out of cargo holds numbers 1 and 2.”

With the fire being extinguished and salvors being able to board the vessel, June 1st had seen rising optimism that, even though the vessel (and cargo) was probably unsalvageable, the liability side could be contained..

Dousing of the vessel further reduced the flames to small spot fires in the aft of the ship. Firefighting tugs continued their spraying and misting operations to ensure the cooling of all hotspots and the vessel’s hull and hatches. Specialized equipment brought by the salvors from the Netherlands is being used to take temperature readings. The Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coastguard remained on scene.

Contractors continued working with local authorities to dispose of any debris that had washed up. Most of the evacuated crew were in quarantine at dedicated local hotels.

The ship, launched only in February, is a total constructive loss; general Average has been declared.

A 10-member team of detectives from the Sri Lankan CID is investigating the incident, including when the fire was first detected by the crew.

The Director-General of the Sri Lankan Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) filed a complaint with the Harbour Police on May 23rd over the environmental destruction caused by the fire onboard the vessel.

In addition to metal and other debris washing ashore, containers have washed ashore as well as the contents from other containers that broke apart after they fell into the ocean. Among the range of debris they are now reporting on the beaches are tons of microplastics. So far, however, they are reporting no oil leaks from the vessel’s bunkers. There will be fears that more containers, as well as potential fuel leakage, will occur.

The MEPA reports that it has commenced water sampling as well as testing of the burnt debris recovered from the beaches. They are looking for chemical residues, including possibly the nitric acid the vessel reported in its cargo.

Statements will be recorded from the other crew members in the near future. The ship was carrying 1,486 containers with 25 tonnes of nitric acid and several other chemicals and cosmetics. It sent out a distress call on May 20th when close to Colombo Port.

In the fall of 2020, Sri Lanka demanded restitution from the owners of the oil tanker New Diamond (IMO 9191424) after the vessel also burnt off the country’s coast. In that instance, they avoided a serious environmental incident, but the country demanded millions of dollars for its firefighting efforts. Criminal charges were also brought against the captain of the tanker, who later paid $65,000 in fines before he was permitted to leave the country (IMN September 7th 2020).

The Sri Lankan government said that it would pay “a certain amount” of compensation to the fishing community, who were forced to suspend activities as the disaster unfolded.

Market analysts were attempting to piece together the likely cost of the loss to the insurance market as a whole. Insurers will face hull and machinery, cargo and liability claims.

The vessel was virtually new, and it had not yet been established how much the hull was insured for and which company insured it.

One estimate on the cargo loss was between $30m and $50m, based on the X-Press Pearl’s 2,700 container capacity and an assumption that a container houses an average of $15,000 to $20,000 of goods.

However, the ballpark for container contents value has risen above this in recent years, with $50,000 to $100,000 a frequently mentioned range, which would put the potential cargo loss at approaching $100m. This excludes the possibility of “one-off” high-value contents, which can boost the value of a single container to more than seven figures.

The cargo loss will likely be spread among a large group of insurers in London, Europe and Asia.

London P&I Club is the group insurer for marine liability on the X-Press Pearl. It said that three crew members had suffered injuries that were not thought to be life changing.

The environmental impact of the blaze remains the one great unknown, and the implications of the sinking of the aft of the ship to the sea floor has yet to play out in terms of the structural implications for the ship and its concomitant environmental impact.

In a total loss situation cargo insurers would be expected to try to recover their losses from the shipowners, bearing down on the P&I Clubs again (such a liability would devolve to the International Group pool, being above the $10m limit retained by individual clubs).

Salvors Smit were thought likely to be working under SCOPIC, which would mean they would be paid by the P&I insurer.

Salvors are usually paid from the value of what is recovered. The SCOPIC clause ensures they are paid adequately for recovering vessels to limit environmental impacts where vessels are so damaged that they have little commercial value.

London Club has declined to speculate about the potential size of the claim.

While the amount of the loss remains one concern, to whom that loss will eventually devolve, and the potential for legal action, is another concern. Key will be the nature of the fire, when a potential problem was first detected, and what was done about it.

2021-built, Singapore-flagged, 31,629 gt X-Press Pearl is owned by Eos Ro Pte Ltd care of manager Sea Consortium Pte Ltd (X-Press Feeders) of Singapore, ISM manager is Eastaway Ship Management Pte. It is entered with London Club on behalf of Killiney Shipping Pte Ltd.

Video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02W5fTZNh98