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Fire on X-Press Pearl: Theories vs Science



Navy personnel attired in protective gear cleaning debris from the stricken ship, which washed ashore. (File photo)

There is nothing we can do now for the disastrous fire on the container ship X-Press Pearl. This will certainly have serious environmental implications, where we must be guided by science rather than personal theories. Some of the academics who have their own explanations, will only confuse the general public to the extent of giving up eating fish, which is our main protein source. When these theories are given over the media there is so much hype that people tend to accept all what they say.

The shipping company is at fault for not properly containing the leak in a container transporting concentrated nitric acid. This acid is highly corrosive, as well as a strong oxidising agent. Generally, transporting such a strong acid, along with highly oxidisable organic compounds, is highly undesirable. We are not sure how the nitric acid was packed inside the container. An inert packing material such as vermiculite, which is a silicate mineral, should have been used as packing to absorb any accidental spills. In the case of a leak from a container, it should be first soaked in this type of adsorbent material, and after soaking the acid in this manner the adsorbent with the acid can be washed away with water, using a high pressure water hose. Ship crews should be trained in such disposal procedures when they transport such dangerous cargo. Shipping crews may not have a good knowledge of the chemistry involved, but they could have contacted experts on the ground with specialized knowledge in hazardous waste disposal.

There is one theory that the nitric acid spill is going to destroy the corals. There is no scientific basis for this argument. Nitric acid added to the vast expanse of the ocean gets diluted to harmless levels. NASA scientists have estimated that nitric acid formed due to lightning, which comes down with the rain, annually amounts to 8.4 million metric tons world-wide. This is part of the nitrogen cycle in nature which has been going on for millions of years. Similarly, sodium methoxide undergoes ready hydrolysis, giving sodium hydroxide and methanol, and their biological effects are minimal considering dilution in the ocean.

Some scientists have claimed that this fire will result in acid rain. Acid rain is caused by the burning of fossil fuel and coal producing sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. These dissolve in water and come down as sulphuric and nitric acids giving acid rain. While theoretically acid rain from the ship fire is a valid argument, looking at the cargo contents there are no sulphur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide sources, and only burning of ship fuel can result in sulphur dioxide which can cause acid rain. Also, since there is only one container of nitric acid, the amount of nitrogen dioxide produced will not be significant, particularly if the nitric acid goes into sea water. Vehicles in Colombo city during the combustion of fuel produce more than the possible emissions from this ship. By all accounts so far, fuel tanks are intact and apart from an oil spill, there is less likelihood of these burning, now that the ship is under water.

The real environmental issues are the plastic pellets and oil spills, and not acid rain or nitric acid. These plastic beads belong to the groups, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) according to the inventory of cargo. What is really disturbing is the fate of the plastic pellets, which are washing ashore, polluting our beaches and ending up in fish. Plastic microfibres have been detected in marine fish for some time since oceans throughout the world are getting heavily polluted with plastics. Very small strands of microplastics are everywhere including our homes. For instance, our own clothes are made up of polymers which give out these, and this matter has received attention from scientists in the last few years. Similarly, soft toys and other plastic toys peel off during use and these are present in the air we breathe. Plastics can remain for at least a hundred years without breakdown. Government agencies such as the Central Environmental Authority, Marine Environment Protection Authority and National Aquatic Research Agency can undertake to monitor the presence of microplastic fibres in the flesh of fish. It is a simple test, involving observing the flesh under the microscope.

If we look at the information available, the ship carried a total of 1886 containers and the distribution of cargo (along with the number of containers in brackets) is as follows: nitric acid (1), 25,000 bags of LDPE and HDPE each weighing 25 kg (55), caustic soda (42), urea (88), lead ingots (8), lubricants (30) methanol, sodium ethoxide, vehicles and other miscellaneous items (rest of the containers). The greatest environmental concern here are the LDPE and HDPE pellets, and the lubricant oils, which can cause oil spills along with the 325 tons of ship fuel.

The question arises as to what can be done to deal with the enormous amount of plastic wastes collected in our beaches. Our plastics industry imports this product as a raw material in large quantities, to produce films for food packaging, which accounts for about 55% of global consumption. Our familiar shopping bags are also made from this polymer, and there are many other applications with injection moulding, which include household goods, toys and sporting goods, caps and various medical devices.

I wish to propose that the accumulated plastic beads be used for the plastics industry and they should be encouraged to reuse the plastic beads washed ashore. A simple gravity separation can separate the sand from the beads. Immersion in sea water, with a higher density than freshwater, can separate the beads from sand, and there is a possibility of reusing these pellets. Some of the bags collected by those who thronged the beach can be purchased, and the initiative of the plastics industry is critical in dealing with the plastic problem.

The damage to the environment caused by the X-Press is enormous, and it is doubtful whether Sri Lanka can at least partially recover the cost of the damage by way of compensation from the ship owners. In the earlier incident involving New Diamond, the Attorney General claimed damages for Rs. 3.4 billion, and according to what a government Minister stated at a recent news conference, only around Rs. 400 million has been paid. It is not clear whether Sri Lanka has signed the appropriate conventions to deal with compensation. Some of these conventions are the Bunker convention (2001), Athens convention (2002) and the London convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims (1996). For instance, Canada has enacted the Marine Liability Act in 2018 to make sure that in the event of an oil spill, compensation is available for the victims and other responders. Environmental remediation is also 100% compensable irrespective of the size of the spill.

The danger of oil pollution from 30 containers containing lubricants and the 325 tons of engine fuel should receive the attention of authorities, to procure the equipment and chemicals needed for its remediation. More importantly, we should have personnel with the necessary expertise to deal with the problem of extensive oil pollution. Oil booms are a popular and most widely used method for oil clean up, due to their simplicity and easier execution. This method has to be carried out immediately after the oil spill is detected. Once the oil is bounded by oil booms, it has to be extracted with the use of skimmers to scoop up the oil. The most effective way is to use adsorbents, and some cheap materials available for this purpose are peat moss, vermiculite and paddy straw. If the oil spill has not dispersed, it is even possible to burn the oil since oil floats on sea water. In addition, dispersants which are chemically similar to the detergents used for household washing, are used for the remediation of oil spills. These break the oil droplets into a smaller size, which makes it easier to mix with water, and the oil eating microbes will eventually ingest and break down these smaller globules.


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Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady



I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.


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Independence celebrations for whose benefit?



Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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Aftermath Of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne’s Assassination



It was on Saturday March 2, 1991 when that fateful LTTE bomb blast shattered the life out of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, Minister of Plantations and Deputy Minister of Defence, in front of the Havelock Road University Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha.

Mr. Wijeratne used to take the same route from home to office every day. The LTTE had monitored his movements and found that it would be easy to target him on his way to office from a strategic point after receiving the information of his departure from home.

The LTTE targeted his vehicle right in front of the University of Colombo Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha. The suicide bomber crashed into the Deputy Minister’s vehicle and killed the Minister instantaneously.

I had dropped our elder son at Royal College for scouting and then went to the public library to return some books and borrow new ones. After having done that, I was returning home when I saw a large cloud of black smoke going up from somewhere on Havelock Road. As I neared Thummulla junction, a university vehicle (I was Registrar of the Colombo University) was going in the opposite direction.

I stopped it and asked the driver what had happened. He said the Shanthi Vihar restaurant at the Thummulla had been set on fire. The police did not allow vehicles into Havelock Road from Thummulla. I parked the car on Reid Avenue between Thummulla and Lauries Road and walked down the Havleock Road to see what exactly had happened.

As I got onto Havelock Road, a policeman accosted me and told me that I cannot be allowed to proceed. Fortunately, at that moment the OIC of the Bamabalapitiya Police station, Mr. Angunawela, came to that spot and recognizing me told the police constable to allow me to proceed.

As I walked down I saw the damage caused. But there were no signs of any vehicle or any dead bodies as the police had got everything removed. There was a large gaping hole on the road where the blast had occurred. But immediately this was filled up and that section of the road carpeted.

I do not know who had ordered it and why it was done in such a hurry. There were pieces of human flesh hanging from the overhead telephone wires. The blast had also affected the house in front where there was a P& S outlet and a lady who had come to buy something had got her eyes blinded by the shrapnel thrown by the blast.

The parapet wall and the Temple flower (araliya) trees that had been grown just behind the wall were all gone. As I went into the hostel, I saw that the front wall of the hostel building badly damaged. When I went in the girls in the hostel were looking terrified and shivering with fright.

Two of the undergraduates who had gone out of the hostel as they had to sit an examination in the university had got very badly injured and they been rushed to the national hospital. Later one girl who was from Kobeigane, a remote village in the Kurunegala area, succumbed to her injuries. The university paid for her funeral. The security guard who had been close to the gate was thrown up and landed back on the ground. Fortunately, he had no injuries other than feeling groggy.

The next job was to evacuate the hostelers from the building. I telephoned the university office and found the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of examinations was in office. I told her what had happened and to come to the hostel in a van. Thereafter both she and I packed all the hostelers in the van and sent them to the Bullers Lane Women’s hostel. This was done in three trips.

On inspecting the damage done to the hostel I thought the building would have to be demolished and a new building constructed to replace it. However, I contacted an Engineer, Mr. Upasena, at the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB,) who came, inspected the damage to the building and stated that he will get it repaired to be stronger than what it was.

He stated that it might cost around Rs, 20,000/- to get the repair done. I contacted NORAD and they agreed to give the funds required for the repair and renovation. Mr. Manickam from NORAD came and inspected the building and agreed to get much more done than what we wanted repaired and renovated. The repair and renovation were done very quickly and the hostelers were able to move in again.

The reopening ceremony was attended by the then Ambassador to Norway, Mr. Manickam and the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice- Chancellor thanked the Ambassador, Mr. Manickam and the CECB for getting the hostel repaired and renovated to be used again. He never mentioned what I had done to get this hostel repaired and habitable again. That is gratitude!


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